Politics & Government

Union donations slow midterm

State workers giving less, still generous across the aisles



It nearly doubled in size since the last election season, but the largest state worker union is spending less on politics this year.

The Washington Federation of State Employees has donated about $248,000 to various political campaigns this year, 14 percent less than in 2004.

"The difference is last time around was a gubernatorial and a presidential election year. This time around, it's Legislature, a couple Supreme Court races and congressional races," union spokesman Tim Welch said.

The federation nearly doubled the number of state workers it represents to about 39,000 in 2005. Its first contracts to include provisions for pay, benefits and mandatory dues went into effect then.

Workers can opt not to contribute to the union's political campaigns by paying lower representation fees and giving up their vote on union matters. But most workers became full dues-

paying members.

The union has negotiated a new two-year contract with Gov. Chris Gregoire - to whom the union donated an extra $250,000 during a recount of the 2004 election - and says it is supporting candidates who will support the new deal in the next legislative session.

"Our big issue is getting the contracts funded by the Legislature," Welch said. "We have the opportunity, as state employees, to elect the folks who will debate that issue."

The bargaining system, established by a law passed in 2002, has drawn some criticism.

"Particularly with any contributions to the executive office, or the legislators, there ought to be some kind of distance, because you don't want any appearance of conflict of interest at the bargaining table," said Michael Reitz of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

The privately funded foundation has been critical of how unions spend the dues they collect on politics. Some of the biggest union spending and influence is not done through campaign contributions, however, but political action, Reitz said.

"A lot of spending can go unreported. Anything like door-belling neighborhoods, communicating with their members, wouldn't be reported to the Public Disclosure Commission," he noted.

Indeed, the federation has said it spent $700,000 on election activities in 2004, more than twice the amount detailed in reported donations.

The state union is prohibited from giving directly to congressional races, but its national parent union can, Welch said.

"Frankly, both federal and state spending limits make it pretty hard to base a strategy on donations alone. So we go door to door, and I think that's where our greatest power is. That's why candidates call on us, because we have volunteers who will go out and help them win," he said.

The federation endorsed both Democrats and Republicans, and has given money to candidates of both parties. But its endorsements favor more Democrats, and about half of its donations this year and in 2004 went to Democrat political committees.

"We can use that for assistance in our targeted races. We can give more than the $1,400 (limit) to a particular race - the tangled web we weave," said Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat working on the party's campaigns statewide.

Hunt, whom the federation endorsed, said the rules allowing political parties to accept and give unlimited amounts of money don't dilute the power of contribution limits. Unions and business interests alike used to directly give candidates large amounts of money, he said.

"Obviously that happens today, but it has to come from more sources," Hunt said. "And I'm of the opinion that you can have lots of money but you can't win the race without that support at home."

Welch said the federation plans to boost the support of its favored candidates through on-the-ground campaigns, particularly on the Saturday before the Nov. 7 election.

"We've got to be very smart about how we work with the people who will fund our contracts," he said.

Adam Wilson covers state workers and politics for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or awilson@theolympian.com. Union donations

Top recipients of Washington Federation of State Employees donations:

Washington State Democratic Central Committee: $60,000

Harry Truman Fund (House Democrats): $50,000

Roosevelt Fund (Senate Democrats): $20,000

Citizens to Uphold the Constitution (pro-incumbent state Supreme Court PAC): $20,000

Washington State Republican Party: $5,000

The Leadership Council (Senate Republicans): $5,000

Related stories from The Olympian