Alaska labor unions take advantage of Citizens United ruling

The Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 26, 2012 

— When the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited campaign contributions in the 2010 Citizens United case, most experts and advocates said it would lead to an overwhelming flood of donations from corporations and wealthy individuals.

In the first election cycle since that decision, business money indeed poured into so-called "independent expenditure" groups in Alaska, including $115,000 alone from one business group in Washington, D.C.

But state labor organizations doubled down. Their affiliated Super PAC, the Putting Alaskans First Committee, raised nearly twice the combined amount of the two main business Super PACs operating in the last election, The Accountability Project and We Are Alaska.

"People thought it was going to be 'Katie bar the door' for corporate money, and as it turns out, organized labor has taken advantage of Citizens United to a degree that at least equals, and in a lot of cases exceeds what the business community has," said Scott Hawkins, chairman of The Accountability Project and a businessman with ties to the oil industry. "That's not what the water cooler narrative was."

Vince Beltrami, chairman of Putting Alaskans First Committee and president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for most of the state's labor unions, said the effort was deliberate and sustained.

Unions were expected to maintain their superiority in the "ground game" -- the phone banks and door-to-door, get-out-the-vote effort that requires organization and volunteers. But outspending the company bosses?

"It was a conscious effort to get more active than we've ever been," Beltrami said in a recent interview in his midtown office, which doubles as a studio for making message videos. "Frankly, while we always have had a good ground game, you know the Citizens United decision that allows you to spend unlimited money? We built a Citizens United-compliant organization."

OIL TAX BATTLE

The money from both sides went primarily into the battle for the state Senate, which for the past four years has been tied 10-10 between Republicans and Democrats. The Democrat-dominated bipartisan coalition that ran the Senate last session blocked an oil-tax cut pushed by the Republican governor, Sean Parnell, and the Republican House.

Parnell said the cut was necessary to encourage oil companies to drill in Alaska. The Senate coalition agreed with that goal, but said Parnell's plan would have given away up to $2 billion a year in revenue with no requirement that producers do anything for their windfall.

The issue is of great interest to organized labor in Alaska, which is dominated by state and local public sector employees and by trade groups that benefit from state-fueled construction projects. If a billion dollars or two were to suddenly vanish from the state treasury, the budget crisis could be far-reaching, with unknown but likely effects on state workers, teachers, police and others, not to mention road pavers, steel workers and electricians.

Beltrami said unions feared that a big loss in the Senate would lead to Wisconsin-style legislation in Alaska to gut the rights of organized labor in the public sector.

Some businesses also benefit from capital projects. But one of the state's most active business groups, the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, solidly supported the tax cut. Its members are the contractors, transportation companies, service providers and others doing business with the major oil producers.

The Alliance's Citizens United Super PAC, We are Alaska, reported raising $135,000. Hawkins' Accountability Project reported $152,500 in contributions, including $115,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee of Washington, D.C., a super-PAC dominated by the insurance, pharmaceutical and oil industries.

Putting Alaskans First Committee reported raising $536,500, of which $411,500 was from Alaska unions. Most of the rest came from two wealthy Alaskans, Barney Gottstein, the retired food wholesaler who has long backed Democratic politics, and Bob Gillam, an Anchorage financial manager and staunch opponent of the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region. Gillam gave $49,000, Gottstein $43,000, according to reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

POTENTIAL TO BACKFIRE?

Citizens United was a groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision that equated money with free speech rights, and corporations and unions with individuals. The court ruled the corporations and unions could make unlimited expenditures on politics, but only for independent campaigns. They could support or oppose candidates, but couldn't coordinate their activities with the candidates themselves.

Like the federal law, Alaska had banned corporations and unions from making campaign contributions. Citizens United changed that.

Alaska got its first taste of the new order in Lisa Murkowski's 2010 write-in campaign for U.S. Senate after she lost the Republican primary to tea party insurgent Joe Miller. Citizens United allowed a Super PAC led by Alaska Native corporations, Alaskans Standing Together, to spend more than $1 million on her behalf over three weeks leading up to the election. She pulled off the upset victory.

There was plenty of money spent in Alaska in the 2012 election even without the independent-expenditure Citizen United groups. The candidates themselves raised fortunes.

Another kind of organization, Make Alaska Competitive Coalition, was also able to raise unlimited funds in support of its "educational" campaign in favor of oil-tax cuts. Unlike the Super PACs, the coalition didn't have to report its sources of money because it didn't directly support or oppose individual candidates.

Several smaller independent expenditure groups had limited activity, such as one in Fairbanks named, Oh No, Not Ralph Again! It was organized to defeat conservative car dealer Ralph Seekins in the Republican primary, and of its $9,100 in contributions, $2,000 came from unions. Seekins lost.

In federal campaigns, unions have increased their fund-raising activity, but not to the degree of business groups and individuals, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington campaign watchdog nonprofit, the Center for Responsive Politics.

But companies, in particular retailers, have been discovering risks in those activities. In 2010, Minnesota-based Target stores contributed $150,000 to a Citizens United group that backed a conservative Republican for Minnesota governor, Krumholz said. Target supported the candidate's position on business issues, but the donation led to a boycott of Target stores because of the candidate's opposition to same-sex marriage -- a position that ran afoul of the store chain's own policy on equal rights.

Alaska businesses are similarly concerned that a political donation could backfire, Hawkins said.

Putting Alaskans First spent heaviest on behalf of two losing incumbent Democrat senators in Fairbanks: $99,600 supporting Joe Thomas, a former union official, against John Coghill; and $94,375 in support of Joe Paskvan against Pete Kelly. In Anchorage, it backed two Democratic winners facing tough opposition, Sen. Bill Wielechowski ($72,602) and Sen. Hollis French ($75,146), and two Republicans from the bipartisan coalition with weak Democratic opponents, Sen. Lesil McGuire and Sen. Kevin Meyer ($45,000 each). It spent another $45,000 on the losing campaign of Sen. Bettye Davis.

'CLOSER THAN THEY WERE EXPECTED TO BE'

Republican Bob Roses said the union money turned what he believed would have been a close race against Wielechowski into a sound defeat.

"There was just a massive amount of money that they spent, and they spent it attacking (French opponent) Bob Bell and myself combined," said Roses, himself a former teacher union head.

Unofficial results show French won by just 53 votes.

Beltrami, the AFL-CIO head, said all the money raised by Putting Alaskans First came from voluntary contributions by Alaska union members, not dues. IBEW members, for instance, are asked if they want to contribute $7 a pay period or 7 cents and hour, he said.

Despite the results, Beltrami said, it was money well spent. He said redistricting by the Republican-dominated state redistricting board was the biggest factor in defeat of Democrats.

"They were predicting much worse beat-downs in a lot of these seats. We held on to some that we shouldn't have, some were closer than they were expected to be," he said. "While the result isn't what we ideally wanted, the effort that we put in was really rewarding. I don't think we lose, I don't think it's ever a waste of money to go into something like this, particularly when it has such huge ramifications for the state of Alaska."

The next step will be watching the Legislature and the next oil-tax debate, Beltrami said. The AFL-CIO message that "It's Our Oil" continues to resonate with the public and may prevent the kind of tax cuts that were passed by the House in 2011, he said.

"We like the oil companies, we want to see more production, we want to see Alaskans hired, but what the governor proposed did nothing to guarantee any of that. That's why we got active," Beltrami said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com

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