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Fast and Low

It's how California unions like their politics.

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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IT'S A BILLBOARD OF THE TIMES. Paid for by the California Nurses Association and posted along highways east and west of Sacramento, the billboards depict three images of Arnold Schwarzenegger--a full head shot, followed by a partial facial image, then finally just the man's hair and forehead--leaving the impression of a Governator drowning in quicksand.

Such is Big Labor's dream: that Schwarzenegger and his reform agenda will fade away. And such is the reality of a bruising special election now in its closing stage: To defeat Arnold, California's unions have adopted a strategy of taking the low road and spending great gobs of money in what may turn out to be one of the grandest and most futile gestures in state political history.

First, the money side, which is breathtaking, even by California's megabuck standards. Before this current election, the most expensive initiative fight in state history occurred seven years ago, when Indian tribes and rival casinos spent more than $92 million on Proposition 5, which legalized casinos on tribal reservations. To put that in perspective, most ambitious initiative campaigns, unless they're financed by a deep-pocketed group, are budgeted around $10 million for.

At last report, organized labor has raised more than $80 million to kill Schwarzenegger's four reforms (Propositions 74, 75, 76, and 77--respectively, teacher tenure, paycheck protection for public employees, budget restraint, and redistricting). The California Teachers Association and its 330,000 members have chipped in $48 million (in addition to the $8 million that CTA spends on lobbying in Sacramento). The Service Employees International Union has contributed nearly $14 million.

Team Arnold figures the opposition's war chest to actually be $100 million--they factor in $8.6 million raised by hostile state legislators and $9.4 million spent by public-employee unions. And because of this largesse, they're having fun at the unions' expense.

Less humorous is the fact that, for the first time in his political career, Schwarzenegger finds himself at a financial disadvantage. He's raised $34 million for his initiative campaign. Add in another $8 million spent by separate campaigns backing the Schwarzenegger agenda and the Governator has less than 50 cents for every dollar spent against him. Traditionally, that's a weak hand.

Democrats have their own worries. In California, roughly 40 percent of union households vote Republican; but 90 percent of union donations go to Democratic candidates. Which leaves the Democratic unions trying to both wield power and save face.

SCHWARZENEGGER CAME TO OFFICE two years ago with the promise that he would bypass legislative roadblocks by going straight to voters. His initiative slate is putting that theory to test.

Take the case of Proposition 75, for example. It doesn't grant public employees new powers; current law already provides what's called an "opt-out" that enables state workers to break free of their unions. Moreover, "paycheck protection" has been tried before in a California election--Proposition 226, which would have applied to all California unions, was defeated in June 1998 (thanks in part to the fact that labor's "no" campaign outspent 226 supporters by a 4-1 margin).

From labor's perspective, reforms like Prop. 75 represent a threat to its power base--both in its ability to underwrite legislators and hold on to a membership whose dues finance those donations. Although Prop. 75 covers only government workers, more than half of California's union members are public employees. At a time when the national labor movement is struggling for relevance and direction, California's unions can't afford to lose to the Governator in a Festivus-like feat of strength like Prop 75.

So how exactly does labor plan to take down Schwarzenegger? That's where the low road begins.

For months, purple-shirted SEIU activists have picketed and protested Schwarzenegger as he has traversed the state. The California Nurses Association went all the way to Fenway Park to heckle him at a Rolling Stones concert. The protests have been a fixture of local television, and are a factor in why Schwarzenegger's standing with Democrats has collapsed in the past year.

But more dubious is a union-paid media campaign that has resorted to dishonesty. Such an example is a television ad entitled "Record," paid for by the teachers' union. It alleges that Prop. 74, the teacher-tenure measure, "allows a principal to fire a teacher without giving a reason or even a hearing." In truth, Prop. 74 wouldn't change the current laws that give teachers hearings and appeals. Schwarzenegger's camp called on CTA and television stations to yank the ad. CTA's response: fight fire with fire. The Alliance for a Better California, a front group for the anti-Schwarzenegger forces, promptly called on Team Arnold to pull a 15-second ad which claims that Prop. 76, the budget reform measure, would actually increase school funding (it might or it might not, depending on how one interprets a breakdown by the California Legislative Analyst's Office).

SPEAKING OF INCREASES, there's the matter of higher dues and how union bosses will have to defend their actions should Schwarzenegger prevail on Nov. 8. Earlier this year, CTA imposed a three-year "special assessment" ($60 a year for each member) to raise a quick $50 million to pay for its initiative fight. However, court documents released earlier this month show that CTA already has blown through that budget and is in the process of taking out a $40 million line of credit to last through the early November--that in addition to an already existing $20 million line of credit.

Perhaps they should have used the cash to simply buy votes, rather than spend the millions borrowed and tithed pounding Schwarzenegger with attacks ads. Those ads accuse the Governor of lying and having a hidden right-wing agenda. But they might yet backfire, if all the negativity (a) makes Schwarzenegger a more sympathetic underdog or (b) further disenchants an already dispirited electorate that will not vote in large numbers.

California's electorate last fall was 45 percent Democratic and 37 percent Republican. A more realistic scenario for November 8 is something closer to 41 percent Democratic and 39 percent Republican. It would be ironic if a labor media campaign meant to turn out its core support instead kept voters home. In which case it won't be hard to find the losers in the special election--just look for the union label.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.