Unions could be the big dog in Philly mayor’s race – or not

    In a fine piece of political reporting, the Philadelphia Daily News’ Sean Collins Walsh tells us that several of the city’s powerful labor unions are meeting regularly and may try and unite around a single candidate in next year’s mayor’s race. That won’t be easy to pull off, but if it happens it could be a game-changer.

    First, why it’s a big deal. As Walsh notes, the city’s campaign finance law limits contributions from political committees to a city candidate to $11,500, and if 20 or 30 union committees max out, that’s a pile o’cash.

    It goes further. The real loophole in the city’s campaign finance law (and it was there when the law was written in 2003) is that while it limits contributions to a candidate’s committee, there’ no restriction on any other political committee spending whatever it wants to help a candidate.

    Under regulations enacted by the city Ethics Board, outside committees have to be careful not to coordinate their activities with the candidate they’re supporting. But there’s nothing to stop a union committee from spending $200,000 on TV ads explicitly endorsing a candidate, and some build trades unions, particularly electricians Local 98 have shown they’ll lay out that kind of cash for a political candidate.

    The big question: Can the unions unite?

    I remember a meeting of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Council back in the 90’s when members of the AFSCME unions representing city employees, came to blows with construction trades guys.

    There was a historical enmity there, rooted in divergent interests, and, at least back then, abetted by racial tension.

    The city unions, with many African-American members, wanted city tax dollars going to basic services, which funded their contracts. The building trades, generally whiter in complexion, were all for the city borrowing money to subsidize hotels, convention centers and other construction projects, because that meant jobs for their members

    That battle was 20 years ago, and there’s no doubt those unions are on much better terms today, in part because of their common loathing for the current mayor. Still, unity isn’t easy.

    I remember the 1991 mayor’s race, when a bunch of business leaders rounded up by developer Ron Rubin were going to take a hard, honest look at the candidates, pick the best and give him (all dudes in that race) the resources to win and move the city forward.

    Didn’t happen.

    They tried, but in the end couldn’t agree. Some went for Ed Rendell, and others backed former City Councilman George Burrell. When it was time to pick one, they found they had different interests, and maybe more important, different relationships. In this town, everybody knows everybody, and there are plenty of old grudges and alliances that figure in.

    Maybe the labor movement will unite in this mayor’s race. I suspect a lot will depend on the field. Some combinations of candidates will present the unions with tougher choices than others.

    And it will be interesting to see if some in the business community decide to try and organize a counterweight to the union initiative.

    Interesting times.

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