OAKLAND — The California Labor Federation vowed Wednesday to put its political forces to work for state Treasurer Phil Angelides in the Democratic primary for governor, but stopped short of pledging the sort of huge television ad campaign that unions waged last year against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With more than 2 million members, the federation provides a major new source of support for Angelides in his battle against Democratic rival Steve Westly, the state controller. Labor's clout is substantial in any California election, but all the more so in a Democratic primary, because most union members are Democrats.
After a private voice vote of hundreds of delegates, union leaders said they would recruit up to 25,000 volunteers to talk to fellow members about Angelides in their workplaces, at their homes or by telephone. The federation also will send mail promoting Angelides to members, said Art Pulaski, the federation's executive secretary-treasurer.
A key question, however, is how much money labor will ultimately put behind Angelides in the primary when its main goal is to oust the Republican incumbent in November, regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination June 6.
"We'll see what it takes to win in the primary, but you don't want to overspend in the primary, because you want to save for the general," Pulaski said.
Pulaski and other union leaders praised Westly's record on labor issues. Asked whether the federation would rule out attacks on Westly in its communications with members, Pulaski responded, "Absolutely."
Angelides hopes that the federation will help him replicate the labor-fueled victory of Gray Davis in the 1998 Democratic primary for governor. Davis was running behind two better-funded rivals, Al Checchi and Jane Harman, but union support vaulted him to the party nomination as his two foes slammed each other in television ads.
This time, the dynamic is different: a two-man contest in which Angelides and Westly appear headed toward a nasty tit-for-tat exchange of negative ads that could shape the race in unpredictable ways. Westly, a mild-mannered Silicon Valley tycoon with a slash-and-burn campaign team, has far more money to spend on television advertising. But Angelides, long known for harsh campaign attacks himself, hopes to offset that advantage with support from labor and big-name Democrats.
"The great hope for everybody is that they don't shred each other apart so they come out of the primary damaged," Jim Hilfenhaus of Laborers' Local 300 in Los Angeles said at the endorsement conference.
Pulaski said the federation would not step into the television ad fray with spots of its own in the primary, but might do so in the general election. It remains to be seen whether any large individual union might advertise.
The federation was a key player in labor's $100-million campaign to defeat the Republican governor's initiatives on the ballot last November. In a testament to labor's political might in California, that campaign succeeded even amid a rupture of the national AFL-CIO.
"What we saw in November was the strongest labor campaign in years, and a pretty united one," said Ken Jacobs, deputy chairman of UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. "The state of their internal organization for politics right now is pretty strong."
Still, labor can falter politically, as it did when it dumped millions of dollars into the failed campaign to block Davis' ouster in the 2003 recall election.
On Wednesday, the federation also pledged support to other Democrats in statewide primaries, including Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi for lieutenant governor and state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) for secretary of state. In the attorney general's race, the federation endorsed both major contenders: Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.