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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010 10:22 am

AFSCME decides to sit out House Democrats’ campaigns

In the 98th House district, which has more state employees than about any other district outside of Springfield, AFSCME endorsed Republican Wayne Rosenthal over Democrat Charles Landers.
The union that represents thousands of state and local government employees, AFSCME, was one of the bigger Democratic campaign contributors in the final six months of the 2008 campaign. But this year the union will be sitting out almost all of the Illinois House Democrats’ top races.

The union met in Springfield several days ago to formalize its endorsements. They announced backing for Gov. Pat Quinn, Alexi Giannoulias for U.S. Senate, Judy Baar Topinka for comptroller and Robin Kelly for treasurer. But it was their legislative endorsements – and their lack of endorsements – that were the most interesting.

The House Democrats haven’t seemed to care about AFSCME’s support all year. House Speaker Michael Madigan led the battle to reduce future pension benefits for the union’s members. Madigan also refused to call a tax hike for a vote, despite demands by AFSCME and other unions. Many of his members are now running on anti-tax platforms and some appear openly hostile to the union.

Speaker Madigan reiterated his opposition to a tax hike the Friday before AFSCME finalized its endorsement decisions, which probably didn’t help matters much.

As you might imagine, the House Republicans are thrilled with this turn of events and think it bolsters their case that they have a better shot at winning the chamber’s majority than most will allow themselves to believe.

The union endorsed just three House Democrats in varying degrees of tough races, and one of them is not an incumbent. Daniel Biss, who ran unsuccessfully two years ago against retiring GOP Rep. Beth Coulson, got the nod. Biss has been upfront about the need for a tax hike. Also receiving endorsements were Rep. Jay Hoffman, who was been on the outs with Speaker Madigan for years, and Rep. Dan Reitz.

And that’s it. Every other House Democrat in a tough race was snubbed by the union. An AFSCME spokesperson said last week that the Democrats in question were “unendorseable,” either for their voting records against tax hikes and for pension reform, or, in the case of open seat contestants, for their responses to union questionnaires and their interaction with local members.

The union’s cold shoulder was just the latest problem facing candidates like Dennis Ahern (D-Moline). Ahern won a three-way primary in a heavily unionized district because of Speaker Madigan’s late intervention. Madigan got in partly because Ahern said he would oppose any tax hikes.

The Republicans have a hard-charging candidate against Ahern, Rock Island County Board member Richard Morthland, but AFSCME did not endorse there. Both oppose tax hikes. That wasn’t the case in other blue-collar districts where unions are important, however.

The Democratic-controlled 98th House District has more state employees than just about any other district outside Springfield, and AFSCME went with Republican Wayne Rosenthal over Democrat Charles Landers. Rosenthal has run a nearly perfect campaign to date, and this seat has looked highly vulnerable to a GOP pickup for months.  

In every other seriously contested House race, AFSCME went neutral. Over a dozen Democratic incumbents who might be on the endangered list got the snub.

And since the union has rebuffed the candidates, it’s highly unlikely that it will give much money to the man who pulls all the strings, Speaker Madigan. The union gave Madigan $180,000 in the last six months of 2008 and thousands more to his candidates, not to mention their grassroots work.

The union was much more kind to the Senate Democrats, endorsing Democrats in all but one of Senate President John Cullerton’s most endangered districts. Cullerton’s Senate approved a major income tax hike last year, which then stalled in the House. He got his reward.

AFSCME’s endorsement of Gov. Quinn is a signal that unions are starting to climb back on board. After a furious response to the governor’s signature on the pension reform bill, the union has apparently reassessed and realized that a Gov. Bill Brady would probably be far worse.

The Service Employees International Union is also gearing up for a big move on behalf of Quinn, insiders say. The Illinois Education Association has already endorsed Quinn. This means that Quinn will probably have the money to compete down the line, unless the unions decide that he’s completely toast and decide to husband their resources for the Chicago mayor’s race.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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