Labor support for Fitzpatrick gives Democrats tougher road to flip Bucks congressional seat

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Bucks County Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Ivyland Borough Councilmember Christina Finello. (AP Photo and Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bucks County Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Ivyland Borough Councilmember Christina Finello. (AP Photo and Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Of the six congressional races considered to be competitive in Pennsylvania this cycle, there’s only one in which the Republican candidate has gotten more money from unions than the Democrat: the 1st Congressional District in Bucks County.

Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent who ran as a moderate Republican and first won the seat in 2016, has pulled in more than $290,000 in contributions from labor according to the website OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign contributions by sector.

By comparison, Democrat Christina Finello, a county solicitor and Ivyland Borough councilmember, has netted about $5,500 from unions despite the fact that she has made support for labor a centerpiece of her campaign.

In the larger landscape of Pennsylvania politics, that sort of variance is an aberration. Typically, unions support Democrats who they can count on to back key priorities including a higher minimum wage, and to fight against right to work and other initiatives that could weaken unions.

But in the context of the unique politics of the 1st Congressional District, and the place Fitzpatrick occupies in congress, it’s less unexpected.

“Our issues always get brought up more when the Democrats control things than when Republicans do, and that’s important,” said Rick Bloomingdale, who heads Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO. “But we have a pretty simple statement: if you’re for us, we’re for you.”

How Fitzpatrick became labor’s favorite Pa. Republican

Fitzpatrick and Finello have both compiled long lists of union endorsements in the run-up to Nov. 3, but Fitzpatrick’s is longer, and it includes perhaps the biggest coup for an aspiring labor-friendly politician: the state AFL-CIO.

The federation makes its endorsements based on a two-thirds vote from 60 different executive council members representing locals across the state.

“Certainly, there was no question,” Bloomingdale said. “Nobody called for a roll call … he was well over the two-thirds.”

But Fitzpatrick hasn’t always been a shoo-in for the AFL-CIO endorsement — or indeed, for support from any union.

Mike Ingrao, a Democrat and former AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer who works as a labor relations consultant for Fitzpatrick and several other congressional Republicans, says when Fitzpatrick first ran for office, getting any union support was hard.

“He had one local firefighter union endorsement, that’s it,” Ingrao said. “He went from that to being endorsed by the AFL-CIO in 2018, and that was a lift. They’re definitely not used to endorsing Republicans.”

The shift in reputation didn’t happen right away.

In Fitzpatrick’s early days in congress, before Democrats controlled the chamber, he voted for several bills that unions disliked. Among others, he supported the Regulatory Accountability Act — which required federal agencies to adopt the least costly regulations, rather than the ones deemed most effective — and a bill that made it easier to terminate Veterans’ Affairs workers in certain cases.

Those are some of the votes that Finello’s campaign brings up to rebut Fitzpatrick’s reputation as a friend to unions.

“While Brian Fitzpatrick continues to support the Trump agenda against affordable healthcare, against reproductive freedom, and against COVID relief, Christina will always put the middle-class families of Bucks and Montgomery counties first,” the campaign said in a statement.

But Ingrao said as time went on, Fitzpatrick made inroads.

In 2017, for instance, he also voted to fund updated Office of Safety and Health Administration rules on injury reporting, and repeatedly voted to preserve prevailing wage laws, which guarantee higher salaries for construction jobs that get government money.

“He views a lot of these union issues as taking care of his constituents,” Ingrao said.

It’s apparent in the scores the AFL-CIO has given him over the years. Fitzpatrick’s “lifetime” score for all his votes over the last four years is 56% — high for a Republican. But for 2019, his score was a lofty 86%.

Gene DiGirolamo, another Bucks County moderate Republican, spent more than two decades in the State House, and enjoyed strong labor support for most of those years.

He now serves as a county commissioner, but the district he once represented is within the borders of the 1st Congressional, and he said he and Fitzpatrick have a similar playbook when it comes to courting unions.

“When Brian ran for the first time he came to me, he said, ‘Gene I want to meet all the labor people,’” DiGirolamo said. “He told them he would support them on the issues down in Washington. He has kept his word. And they have kept their word.”

The union dilemma: a safe bet vs. a proven incumbent

Bloomingdale acknowledges Fitzpatrick hasn’t voted alongside labor 100% of the time.

More recently, he voted against the House Democratic-sponsored Heroes Act, which was favored by unions for creating an emergency workplace infectious disease standard and giving another round of relief aid to local government and unemployed workers, among other labor-friendly proposals.

Republicans — and some moderate Democrats — universally rejected it.

“It was an issue for me. I mean, I lobbied him,” Bloomingdale said. “But it’s one issue. We knew we had the votes.”

It was a dealbreaker for some unions, though.

Bobby “Mac” McAuliffe heads District 10 of the United Steelworkers, which encompasses Pennsylvania. He and his union members endorsed Finello, in part because Fitzpatrick never answered a questionnaire they sent him.

Fitzpatrick’s votes don’t help either.

“We looked at his percentages of how he votes,” he said. “The percentage of how he supports the middle class was only like 29 percent of the time…we looked at his voting record for women, for racial equality, how he supports big business, plus he voted against the Heroes Act.”

The Steelworkers aren’t necessarily opposed to supporting a labor-friendly Republican. McAuliffe points out that they backed DiGirolamo, for instance.

But he said they aren’t ever going to support a candidate if they have any questions about a few key issues. They’re committed to ensuring that Pennsylvania workers continue to get prevailing wage for large construction projects that get state money. They want to raise the minimum wage, and they’re trying to fend off right-to-work legislation, which keeps workers from being required to join collective bargaining units, even if their workplace has voted to unionize.

McAuliffe regularly gets feedback on political candidates from his rank and file members.

He said there’s been some shift towards Trump— but that isn’t necessarily affecting down-ballot races like the one between Fitzpatrick and Finello.

“You know some people, especially in Pennsylvania, they think somebody is going to come in and take their gun away,” he said. “And I understand it, I just don’t necessarily agree. I’d rather make sure I had a job.”

How a moderate can work

DiGirolamo argues, in a hotly-divided political chamber, it can be useful to unions to have some labor-friendly Republicans.

When he was in Harrisburg, he said, he couldn’t even count “how many times Republican leadership wanted to move bills … that would have hurt public or private sector unions.”

His strategy in those moments was always the same: organize the 15 or so moderate Republicans against the bill.

“If I could always get 10 or 12 Republicans to tell leadership, ‘We’re not voting for this,’ there was just no way they could bring it up for a vote,” he said.

That’s the calculation Bloomingdale is making — plus, he thinks loyalty is important.

Fitzpatrick is the only Congressional Republican Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO is endorsing this year.

Bloomingdale said more than anything, it’s because he doesn’t want to break any promises to someone who has been supportive of labor.

But he adds, that also doesn’t reflect badly on Finello.

“If she wins, I’m sure she’ll be pro-labor,” he said. “But we can’t just bail on an incumbent because somebody carries a “D” behind their name.”

Which way will Pa. vote?

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