La­bor looks to pun­ish Democrats

Mem­bers of Congress who sup­port Pres­i­dent Obama’s trade deal could face re­tal­i­a­tion come elec­tion time.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - CATH­LEEN DECKER cath­leen.decker@la­times.com Twit­ter: @cath­leen­decker For more on pol­i­tics, go to www.la­times.com/decker.

Or­ga­nized la­bor suf­fered an em­bar­rass­ing loss in Cal­i­for­nia last month when a de­fi­ant Demo­crat it had tar­geted for years eas­ily won a state Se­nate seat over a union-pre­ferred can­di­date. So it rev­eled in Fri­day’s victory over Pres­i­dent Oba­maon a trade mea­sure that in­spired a battle for the votes of Demo­cratic House mem­bers.

The trade fight was an epic in­tra­party mud­fest. Unions, the party’s big­gest source of pave­ment-pounders and money, bar­raged un­de­cided House mem­bers with phone calls, ads and protests. Obama gath­ered lo­cal tele­vi­sion news­cast­ers to the White House to praise the mem­bers he hoped would side with him and trav­eled to Capitol Hill for some last-minute, and ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, arm-twist­ing.

The fe­roc­ity was still be­ing felt post-vote by the few Cal­i­for­nia Democrats who thwarted la­bor amid clear threats of ret­ri­bu­tion.

“It’s dis­ap­point­ing that we had a few mem­bers vote in away that we would say was against the in­ter­ests of work­ing peo­ple in Cal­i­for­nia,” said Steve Smith of the state la­bor fed­er­a­tion. “And this is some­thing we’re go­ing to re­mem­ber.”

Re­tal­i­a­tion is al­ways dif­fi­cult to game­out, but in Cal­i­for­nia it­would come with a twist: The mem­bers la­bor is an­gri­est at are Democrats who barely won their seats against strong Repub­li­can chal­lenges. Dam­ag­ing a can­di­date who dis­agreed on one is­sue— even a big one— runs a real risk of turn­ing a seat over to a party la­bor dis­agrees with al­most all the time.

In the­ory, la­bor could back can­di­da­cies by com­pet­ing Democrats, but they’d have to run against in­cum­bents who have spent years build­ing fundrais­ing net­works and po­ten­tially alien­ate fel­low Democrats for whom the trade bill is not the most im­por­tant marker.

The tough de­ci­sions ahead will comeat a dicey time for unions. His­tor­i­cally, their fights have been waged with Repub­li­cans, but in re­cent years Democrats have taken them on as well.

In Los An­ge­les, for­mer Mayor An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa earned en­mity with his bud­get pro­pos­als; cur­rent Mayor Eric Garcetti won elec­tion in 2013 by slay­ing his op­po­nent for her ties to a public em­ployee union. A statewide Field Poll taken at the end of 2013 found la­bor’s pop­u­lar­ity slump­ing, with 45% of Cal­i­for­ni­ans say­ing unions were a force for harm more than good, to 40% de­fend­ing them.

More trou­ble lies ahead: Unions an­tic­i­pate a 2016 bal­lot mea­sure that­would give de­ci­sion-mak­ing power on new em­ployee pen­sions to vot­ers, not the elected of­fi­cials who have re­mained more loyal to la­bor than have rank-and-file res­i­dents.

The fight be­tween la­bor and Obama was in oneway lop­sided. Trade rarely in­spires rapt sup­port­ers; those who care about it are more apt to be those threat­ened by la­bor agree­ments, like the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment of the 1990s. It is blamed by unions to­day for the loss of al­most 90,000 Cal­i­for­nia jobs.

Echo­ing the ar­gu­ment made then, Obama in­sisted that new and bet­ter-pay­ing jobs would fol­low if hewas given author­ity to craft a Pa­cific Rim­trade deal. Cal­i­for­nia, he said, would see its ex­ports sky­rocket and its ports grow flush with busi­ness. But his party’s lead­ers did not fall into line.

State Demo­cratic Party Chair­man John Bur­ton said the no­tion of the treaty “stinks to high heaven.” Atty. Gen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris asked sup­port­ers to add their names to a list of those ob­ject­ing to “a reck­less rub­ber stamp” for Obama— a list that she pre­sum­ably can use for her U.S. Se­nate cam­paign.

In the end, only seven Cal­i­for­nia Democrats out of 32 in the House agreed to a pre­lim­i­nary vote that­was part of the trade deal. Only five— Reps. Ami Bera of the Sacra­mento sub­urbs, Scott Peters and Su­san Davis of San Diego, Jim Costa of the Cen­tral Val­ley and the Cen­tral Coast’s SamFarr— voted to give the pres­i­dent swift author­ity tomake a trade deal. The first one failed and the sec­ond one passed, and the House will take the mat­ter up again thisweek.

The mem­bers of Congress who flouted la­bor’s wishes said they­were vot­ing their dis­tricts’ needs.

“I came to Congress to put peo­ple be­fore pol­i­tics,” Bera said in a state­ment, adding that the trade act will in­clude la­bor and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions “not seen in any pre­vi­ous trade author­ity bills.”

Peters em­pha­sized that Fri­day’s votes were on pro­ce­dural mat­ters, not on a treaty it­self.

“Our biotech and hi-tech com­pa­nies de­pend on ex­port­ing their goods, and as a port city, San Diego de­pends on ac­cess to for­eign mar­kets,” his state­ment said. “But trade only works ifwe set the rules. Ifwe don’t step up, some­one else like China will.”

Both men won nar­rowly in 2014 and are tar­geted by Repub­li­cans in 2016. Now Democrats will have to de­cide whether to aim at them aswell.

Smith, the la­bor fed­er­a­tion spokesman, said unions un­der­stand that they need to per­suade Cal­i­for­ni­ans about their heft on is­sues like min­i­mumwage in­creases and sick-day pay that ac­crue to “mil­lions of peo­ple across the state.”

And at the same time, la­bor wants to re­mind politi­cians that they need to toe the line.

“Look, we’re again pleased that the vast ma­jor­ity of con­gres­sional Democrats did the right thing to­day,” Smith said, just af­ter Fri­day’s vote. “We’ll worry about the oth­ers later.”

Michael Reynolds Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

PRES­I­DENT OBAMA and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi cau­cus be­fore Fri­day’s vote on trade leg­is­la­tion. The trade fight was an epic in­tra­party­mud­fest.

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