Tacoma candidates bank on contributions from unions
DAVID WICKERT; The News Tribune
Candidates looking for cash to mount a campaign for public office in Tacoma can turn to local homebuilders and other businesses for sizable contributions.
But the most dependable sources of political support in Tacoma elections for mayor and City Council are public employee unions.
Unions representing city employees have given more than $100,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to Tacoma candidates since 2003, an analysis of contributions shows.
Leading the way is the Tacoma Professional Firefighters Union, which has given nearly $30,000 to city candidates. The union is the top contributor to Tacoma candidates in recent elections.
The Tacoma Police Union was the second-largest contributor to city races, giving $23,500. Four other employee unions also contributed thousands of dollars.
Other top contributors in recent elections include the local Master Builders Association, Simpson Investment Co. and the Weyerhaeuser family.
Several elected officials say public employee unions especially the firefighters and police are the most influential groups in Tacoma politics. They contribute money and labor to campaigns and in the case of the firefighters produce and distribute yard signs that give candidates exposure.
Mayor Bill Baarsma said firefighters and police have been the top campaign contributors since he started in local politics in 1991. The only change hes noticed is the size of contributions.
You needed to raise about $20,000 for a council race in 1991, Baarsma said. Now, its up to $100,000. Were living in a totally different world.
Current representatives of the Tacoma fire and police unions did not respond to several phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. Other current and former union officials say theyre looking for candidates who are sympathetic to their concerns and keep an open mind.
What youre looking for is a candidate that weighs all the issues, said Tacoma firefighter Pat McElligott, who spent 19 years as president of the firefighters local before stepping down last year.
Were not looking for candidates who vote 100 percent our way, he said. Were looking for a candidate who, when they get elected, will listen.
Elected officials agree that the unions dont make specific demands of the candidates they support. And they say theres nothing wrong with unions and other contributors looking out for their interests.
But Councilman Mike Lonergan said that when unions become the main source of funding in a particular race which he believes is happening this year their influence can be troubling.
Very few companies would be comfortable with their employees selecting the board of directors of the company, Lonergan said.
BIG ROLE THIS YEAR
Unions are playing a prominent role in this years campaigns for Tacoma City Council and mayor. Through early September, unions representing Tacoma employees had given about $36,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to city candidates.
Thats only about 10 percent of all contributions to city candidates through early September. But union contributions stand out in at least two council races.
Through early September, city employee unions accounted for 40 percent of cash and in-kind contributions to Rebecca Summers-Kirby in the District 5 race on Tacomas East Side. They helped give Summers-Kirby a substantial fundraising edge over her opponent, Joseph Lonergan (Mike Lonergans son and an employee of The News Tribune).
In the citywide Position 6 race, firefighters have rallied behind Keven Rojecki a SeaTac firefighter and legislative liaison for the Washington State Council of Firefighters who is running against Metro Parks Board member Victoria Woodards.
Both candidates have accepted contributions from unions representing city employees. But Rojecki has the backing of firefighters unions across the state some from as far away as Spokane and Vancouver.
Firefighter unions have contributed nearly $34,000 to Rojeckis campaign through early October, 43 percent of his contributions. And thats not counting contributions from individual firefighters.
Rojecki said the out-of-town contributors are friends and acquaintances hes made through his job
Its no different than your friends would support you in an endeavor you undertook, he said. Theres obviously nothing in it for them. Theyre doing it because they know me and they like me.
The public employee unions raise and spend campaign cash through political action committees. The Tacoma firefighters committee is called Active in Democracy (AID). The police PAC is called the Committee on Political Support (COPS).
The committees raise money from small contributions by union members. Documents on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicate fire union members currently contribute about $6 several times a year to Active in Democracy.
It adds up. Last year the committee raised nearly $34,000 in contributions. Through August this year its raised about $28,000.
That kind of money allows the fire union to be influential beyond Tacoma politics. It also contributes to other state and local candidates.
Public employee union contributions generally account for a fraction of a candidates total contributions. But they do stand out.
For example, the typical contribution to Marilyn Stricklands mayoral campaign this year is $100. The typical public employee union contribution to Strickland is $1,000.
But politicians say the influence of public employee unions goes beyond campaign cash. The firefighters union operates a sign shop that candidates find invaluable. And it has enough bodies the union represents about 400 employees to provide a substantial labor force to any campaign.
Former City Councilman Kevin Phelps, who won the unions endorsement in his first council run, said the firefighters will make and post campaign signs for candidates. When youre a candidate trying to get yard signs up, thats a pretty strong influence, he said.
Mayor Baarsma served as former Councilman Bob Evans campaign manager in the 1990s. Evans won the police unions endorsement, but lost the support of the firefighters union. That meant the Evans campaign had to muster volunteers to put together his signs.
I remember spending one cold day in Steve Kirbys garage, as Bobs son and I were putting together signs, Baarsma said.
It was bitterly cold, he said. Man, how cold it was. And all I can remember thinking was, if only that fire (endorsement) had come through.
LOOKING FOR SYMPATHY
In return for support, union officials want candidates who are sympathetic to workers concerns.
Dough Henderson, political coordinator for Joint Council of Teamsters No. 28, said wages and health care are key concerns.
The City of Tacoma negotiates contracts with 13 local union affiliates. Though the contracts are negotiated by city management, they are approved by the City Council.
Were looking for, what do (candidates) think is a prevailing wage, Henderson said.
The union also might ask local candidates about state and federal issues, mindful of the fact that they could seek higher office later.
If we have a candidate thats good for the community, we want to make sure they continue to stay in the race, Henderson said.
Elected officials said campaign contributions have not swayed their votes. But that doesnt mean the unions arent influential.
Baarsma has had the support of the police and fire unions for most of his political career (including nearly $21,000 in contributions for his two mayoral campaigns). He said that in 1993 the City Council considered whether to allow police officers to have take-home cars or personally assigned vehicles.
The police chief and the union backed the idea. Baarsma said he initially opposed it.
A police union person called me and asked me to read some material on why the idea was actually more cost-effective than I believed, Baarsma said.
A few days later, four studies analyzing the cost-benefits of personally assigned vehicles showed up on Baarsmas doorstep.
I was open to it, Baarsma said, and I changed my opinion.
More recently, public employee unions have weighed in on other nonwage issues:
Proctor Street Fire Station. The firehouse has been threatened with closure for years. In 2003 firefighters gave up a portion of their retirement benefits so the city could afford to keep the station open. McElligott, then the union president, was credited as a driving force behind the effort.
Performance reviews for every employee. While theyre not necessarily opposed to the reviews, Mike Lonergan said union representatives oppose linking compensation to performance.
They feel that gives too much power and potential for abuse to supervisors that might not simply reward the best workers, but reward their friends and crush their enemies, Lonergan said.
Emergency dispatch. Phelps noted that Lakewood fire dispatchers are nonuniformed employees, while Tacoma dispatchers are uniformed firefighters.
Why is that? he said. You will never hear that kind of discussion happen at Tacoma City Council.
On a related issue, a performance audit recently found that Pierce County governments could save $2.5 million by consolidating their five primary and two secondary dispatch centers. But Baarsma recently called the consolidation plan the third rail of local politics, in part because Tacoma firefighters dont want to see dispatching duties shifted to a civilian work force.
Staffing. Phelps sees union influence in the size of the Fire Department. He said the department is well-staffed for a city of Tacomas size.
I dont think that happens naturally, Phelps said. I think that happens through people being able to effectively sit down with elected officials.
Baarsma sees it differently. He noted the department also provides emergency services to the port, the cities of Fife and Fircrest and parts of unincorporated Pierce County.
Its more than just a one-city department, Baarsma said. So I dont think theres validity to the argument that its overstaffed.
Politicians say union influence sometimes can undermine the public interest.
Lonergan and Phelps cited incidents in which an unnamed council member divulged to union officials the details of collective bargaining discussions held in closed council sessions.
The next day it seemed that union leaders knew exactly what was said (in the closed meetings), down to exact quotes from individuals in those executive sessions, Lonergan said.
The effect was to undermine the citys bargaining power by tipping union officials to the citys bottom line, he said.
But the elected officials stressed theres nothing wrong or illegal about contributing to campaigns and trying to influence city policy. And influence doesnt always translate into success.
Phelps said the firefighters union, for example, doesnt have a great track record of electing candidates. In 2003, for example, all three of the candidates the union supported lost.
The Teamsters Henderson said the union sometimes gets some rub from the general public for its political involvement. But he said its the unions job to protect employee interests. And he said union employees also are local residents and constituents of elected officials.
Firefighter McElligott echoed those comments. Until recently, he was a Tacoma resident. He said he cares about issues such as street maintenance and wants to elect council members who can provide leadership on a range of issues.
Lonergan has won union support in the past and said he considers the unions partners with the City Council. He doesnt blame them or other campaign contributors for acting in their own interests.
Take Simpson Investments, a forest products company and one of the top contributors in recent Tacoma elections. Lonergan noted that Simpson which has a plant in the Tideflats is a huge customer for the citys utilities.
That almost makes it necessary for them to want people on council (which approves utility rates) who understand business, someone who realizes the cost of regulation, he said.
But Lonergan worries that special interests can have an outsized influence in some races. He said there isnt a good mechanism like a better government group for seeking and compiling significant contributions from average citizens.
I think the antidote to too much involvement by some groups is more involvement by the general public, he said. Absent that, the main players are going to be business groups and labor groups.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
Staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this report
Cash and in-kind campaign contribution totals for the 10 largest contributors to City of Tacoma mayoral and City Council races from 2003 through early September 2009 based on campaign finance records. Candidates who gave substantial sums to their own campaigns are not included. The information might be incomplete, as some candidates were not required to file detailed disclosure reports under state law.
Donor Total Contributions
Tacoma Professional Firefighters Union $29,421
Tacoma Police Union $23,500
Master Builders Association $19,100
(local homebuilders group)
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers $17,783
(represents Tacoma Public Utilities workers)
Simpson Investment Co. $17,200
(forest products company)
Weyerhaeuser family $14,275
(includes contributions from several individuals)
Joint Labor Committee of Tacoma $13,000
(negotiates health benefits for city workers)
Lea Armstrong $10,900
(founder of Armstrong Uniserve, an in-home personal care business)
Teamsters Union $10,850
(represents several city bargaining units)
Rusty George Design $9,600
(Tacoma graphic design firm)
Who gave the money and who got it? Search our online database of major City of Tacoma campaign donations at thenewstribune.com/tacomadonors