Taking On The Unions In Calif. — And Winning
A political candidate can take on the public-employee unions in a nasty street rumble and emerge bloodied but victorious. That’s the message from Tuesday’s election to fill a board of supervisors seat in Orange County, Calif.
It was a race that could have statewide and even national implications because of the particularly gutsy role the Republican Party played in directly challenging union power.
The county’s two most powerful public employee unions, the Orange County Employees Association and the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, spent upward of $1 million in independent expenditures on behalf of their candidate, Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu, a go-along, get-along Republican who promised to drop a county lawsuit challenging a 2001 retroactive pension increase for deputies.
Most of the union money went toward hit mailers against Shawn Nelson, a Fullerton councilman who played a key role in stopping an egregious pension hike in his city and the conservative choice for the seat.
County supervisor races don’t usually generate that level of spending. But the unions — with their nearly bottomless pit of cash from dues-paying members — dropped one mailer after another championing Sidhu and depicting Nelson as a man who wants to free child molesters because his law firm does criminal defense work.
The unions had so much money, they even bought radio spots on Los Angeles talk radio — an astounding use of funds, given that Orange County accounts for only a portion of the L.A. radio market.
But the unions had to make a point. Nick Berardino, president of the OCEA, told the Orange County Register that his union went after Nelson because he doesn’t “tell the truth about us being a reform union” and because Nelson “vilifies us to get votes.”
My sense is the union had to strike hard against Nelson because of his hard-line stance in favor of pension reform and because of Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh’s line-in-the-sand manifesto.
In January, Baugh gave a speech to the county Republican central committee deploring the influence of unions and berating Republicans who “have been just as guilty as Democrats” in giving in to pension increases and debt spending.
“I don’t want to see Republicans voting the so-called right way on the pension issues facing us today,” he said. “I want to see Republicans taking political risks by offering pro-active solutions that include creating two- or three-tier pension systems that would allow us to get our books back in order. For elected officials, this means risk and political courage to place your principles above your office.”
He said the party will no longer endorse candidates who receive support from public employee unions.
Baugh and the party got behind Nelson, an outspoken pension reformer and county GOP elected official of the year. Nelson refused union support and embraced Baugh’s controversial stance. Sidhu not only made a promise to the unions (regarding the county lawsuit), but also sat back and enjoyed enormous union support in the form of independent expenditures even though he signed the no-union-support pledge.
More than a supervisor seat was on the line. Baugh’s manifesto and the party’s credibility were put to the test. Few people, however, expected the amount of union support that would flow Sidhu’s way, or the number of establishment Republicans who backed Sidhu — in my view because they preferred the malleable candidate who might be more amenable to their lobbying.
I talked to Nelson, Baugh and others involved in the race right up until Election Day, and everyone was on pins and needles. Many OC political observers believed Sidhu would prevail, given the union onslaught.
In the end, Nelson won big and Sidhu barely edged out low-spending, second-tier candidates who weren’t viewed as serious factors in the race. Nelson will fill the seat immediately, given that the seat is vacant after another libertarian-oriented pension reformer, Supervisor Chris Norby, was elected to the state Assembly.
As the top two vote getters, Nelson and Sidhu will face off again in November to fill the seat for the next four years. But it’s clear union spending accomplished little, and it’s unlikely the unions will spend so much again after getting beaten so badly Tuesday.
The OC race, coupled with the failure of national unions to unseat Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, reminds us that it’s possible to stand up and beat the unions in a head-to-head battle, especially in the current political climate, where the public is increasingly frustrated by overly generous pensions and mounting debt. The key is having the courage to stand up and fight.
May this be the first of many such battles.
• Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s journalism center in Sacramento and author of “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”