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Cash for Obama at Issue as Public-Workers’ Union Picks Leader

President Barack Obama Unions
President Barack Obama speaks during the United Auto Workers' (UAW) annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, 2012. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Pool via Bloomberg

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will select a new president today in an election that could lead to reduced political spending for President Barack Obama’s re-election.

The race to succeed Gerald McEntee, who has led the union since 1981 and emphasized national political activism, pits one of his closest aides against the head of the union’s largest local who argues for diverting political spending to local campaigns. The vote is being held at the union’s biannual convention in Los Angeles.

Danny Donohue, the head of the Civil Service Employees Association in New York, said in an interview before the convention that the union has become too much “a top-down organization.” He is opposed by Lee Saunders, now secretary-treasurer of AFSCME.

“The White House will need money, that is a worry,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, said in an interview. “The labor vote will go for Obama, but money is limited.”

Any money diverted to other campaigns could be costly in a tight race, Zelizer said.

Labor Spending

Labor groups spent about $450 million, a record, helping elect Democrats to the White House and Congress in 2008, including through political-action committees. McEntee pledged to spend more than $90 million to elect Democrats this year.

The AFSCME race is a rematch from 2010, where Saunders and Donahue faced each other for union’s secretary-treasurer post, with Saunders winning by about 3,000 votes. AFSCME, the largest U.S. union of government workers, has 1.6 million members.

Supporters of Donohue point to the failed, union-led effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who limited collective bargaining rights of state workers, as demonstrating a need to spend more on state and city races.

“We should focus spending on the local, city council, towns,” Matt Hattorff, representing Local 852 in Coram, New York. “There’s been no focus on the large picture.”

Following the vote, union members complained they were outspent by Walker supporters and the election wasn’t focused enough on collective bargaining. Obama also received some blame for not visiting the state during the general election.

Powerful PACs

“We need the international union to be pro-active to help those of us in the trenches,” Donohue says on his campaign website.

As the union’s No. 2 official, Saunders has been at McEntee’s side as the union spent freely on national political campaigns.

“A lot needs to be spent at the top to fight off the powerful PACs,” Christopher McAuliffe, representing Local 1912 from Binghamton, New York, at the convention and wearing a shirt supporting Saunders.

Saunders would continue McEntee’s efforts to spend large amounts of money on the national level and support Obama, said Richard Abelson, the executive director of AFSCME’s district council 48 in Milwaukee and a volunteer for Saunders’ campaign.

“Otherwise, some of these anti-union conservatives are going to be emboldened by what happened in Wisconsin,” said Abelson, to whom the Saunders campaign referred questions.

Labor remains a supportive of Obama, with 57 percent of union members who are registered to vote supporting him, compared with 35 percent for his likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney, according to a Gallup poll released June 11. Among government employees who are members of unions, Obama’s support rises to 59 percent and Romney’s slips to 34 percent, according to Gallup.

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