Saunders: Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Minnesota Top Fed’s Political List

WASHINGTON–Ohio Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed Fitzgerald “has a great message but needs money.”  Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf has an excellent chance at winning the governor’s chair in Harrisburg.  Business executive Mary Burke is in a flat tie against controversial GOP incumbent Scott Walker in Wisconsin, where unions will step up their game.  Charlie Crist has a good shot in Florida.  And the Minnesota legislature is in play.

That, in one paragraph, sums up the AFL-CIO’s top political priorities at this point in the election year, according to AFSCME President Lee Saunders.

Interviewed July 30 during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Washington, Saunders, chairman of the federation’s political committee, ran down a list of key races that unionists and their allies will concentrate on this fall.  Governors’ chairs are on top.

But whether the fed and its member unions will achieve their goal of electing worker-friendly state chief executives and lawmakers – and unseating unfriendly ones, prime among them Walker – depends on energizing members and their allies, he warns.  That may be easier said than done.

Off-year elections traditionally have much lower turnouts and the 2010 vote was no exception: The Republican base voted and many non-base Democratic voters did not.  The result was a GOP sweep that gave it control of states from coast to coast, plus the U.S. House.

Saunders and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., still believe workers and their allies can take the U.S. House back.  Pelosi addressed the council July 30, behind closed doors, discussing her plan to do so.   But even Saunders says other races are higher priority.

Specifically, he lists governorships, legislatures and the U.S. Senate, in that order.

“State houses and legislatures are covering a lot of ground” in laws that affect workers, since Congress is dysfunctional, says Saunders, whose union represents more than 1.6 million state and local workers.  “But we have to involve voters in local politics,” he admits.

That means getting them to pay attention to down-ballot races, since AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel told PAI this Congress is “the least-productive in history.”

Saunders’ observations on specific races include:

Ohio: Fitzgerald, the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) executive, needs funds to get his message out against incumbent GOP Gov. John Kasich, “who has a lot of money,” says Saunders, a Clevelander.  Like Wisconsin’s Walker, Kasich pushed through a law eliminating collective bargaining rights for 400,000 state and local workers.  But a labor-led referendum overturned that measure by a 3-to-2 margin several years ago.

Pennsylvania: Unions plan to put a lot of people on the ground for Wolf and against Right Wing GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, who is currently underwater in opinion polls.

Wisconsin: “Mary Burke is running an excellent campaign” against Walker, whose law stripped 200,000 state and local workers of bargaining rights, and their unions of dues.  “Individual unions and Workers Voice will be heavily involved” there.  “The economy in the state is still suffering,” which will help Burke, Saunders adds.

Michigan: Reclaiming the state legislature “will be tough,” Saunders says.  The GOP controls the state senate by better than a 2-to-1 ratio and has a 59-51 state house lead.  So unions will concentrate on ousting GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.  Snyder’s legislative successes include a right-to-work law, a law letting the state impose a czar on “failing” local governments – used to force Detroit into bankruptcy – and abolition of teacher tenure, among other items.

Minnesota:  Saunders says incumbent Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton, who has worked with the recent DFL state legislative majority to approve pro-worker and pro-woman worker laws, “is in fine shape.”  But, he adds, “We have to protect the legislature.”  Dayton won the governor’s chair in 2010 with 44 percent in a 3-way race.  That election left him with a GOP-run legislature, and gridlock, leading to a 2-week state shutdown.  Democrats took over the legislature in the 2012 balloting.

Florida: Republican-turned-Democrat Crist “is in a close race” against his GOP successor, Right Wing former hospital chain CEO Rick Scott.  Crist will win only if all of labor mobilizes in unity against Scott, Saunders warns.

Not all is peaches and cream for unions as they head into the homestretch before the November balloting.

Saunders warns that Gov. Pat Quinn, D-Ill., is in trouble after alienating unionists over pensions.  “Illinois is important, even though we haven’t seen eye-to-eye with Quinn on issues,” Saunders admits.  The state AFSCME is suing to overturn Quinn’s pension cuts.  “But if he (Quinn) doesn’t win, we’re in trouble,” the AFSCME chief adds.

And Connecticut Democrat Dannel Malloy, who once walked a picket line with striking nurses, “has to rebuild alliances,” particularly with teachers, Saunders says.  “He won narrowly the last time around,” with 50 percent of the vote.  “But his (Republican) opponent has talked a lot about having ‘a Wisconsin moment,’” in the Nutmeg State.

He also calls Iowa “a sleeper race” where the pro-worker Democrat “is closing the gap” against long-time GOP incumbent Terry Branstad.

Add all that up, Saunders says, and labor not only must try to win opposition-held seats, but “also protect its friends.”  But it all comes back to motivating unionists and their allies.

“If we get out our base, and educate, and mobilize and organize our community allies across the country, we win.  If we don’t get our base out and sit on our hands, we lose.”