Pelosi, Hoyer Uneasy Over AFL’s GOP Support

Posted March 5, 2004 at 5:31pm

House Democratic leaders will head to the AFL-CIO annual convention this week with a dual goal: reiterate their party’s support for organized labor and make plain they will have limited tolerance for the federation’s support of GOP candidates in 2004.

Several well-placed Democratic sources said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), in Bal Harbor, Fla., today and Tuesday to speak at the annual event, will hold talks with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other high-level labor officials about the federation’s role in the November election. Pelosi, Hoyer and other key Democrats are worried about labor support for moderate Republicans and want the AFL to re-evaluate its contributions in districts where Democratic challengers are in play.

Sources close to the leaders said Pelosi and Hoyer want to address labor officials before the election cycle gets fully under way and the federation begins shelling out money to Republicans, possibly helping to tip the scales against House Democrats.

“We’re raising these concerns now,” said one senior Democratic House aide. “We want to head it off before it comes to that.”

The sources said leaders are focusing on GOP Members who have received labor support in the past but who have weak labor voting records and those in marginal districts Democrats are targeting this cycle. While Democrats don’t have a specific list, their concerns center on Republicans heavily bankrolled by labor in previous cycles, pointing to Members such as Reps. Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Mike Ferguson (N.J.) and Bob Ney (Ohio).

“We’re trying to demonstrate to organized labor that at the end of the day Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker is more important than organized labor finding one, two or five moderate Republicans to support to say they are bipartisan,” the high-level aide added. “They need to be careful about who they decide to support.”

The AFL has consistently defended its support of moderate Republicans, arguing it cannot ignore the majority party and those Members who back their agenda. One senior labor official, dismissing the latest round of Democratic concerns, said Pelosi has already made her position clear.

“Pelosi got all worked up,” the labor aide said. “She was upset that some of the labor money was going to Republicans.”

Another union political strategist added: “We’re talking about people who we’ve had long relationships with and who we’re going to continue to support no mater what Pelosi says.”

The latest round between the AFL and House Democrats comes as the minority party believes it is gaining momentum this cycle. Leaders feel they are in a better position to make gains in November after winning last month’s Kentucky special election and now that the party has a presumptive presidential nominee in Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who is neck and neck with President Bush in the polls.

Democratic leaders held private talks last September with AFL senior officials, trying to clear the air with the federation and Sweeney about their role in the 2004 election. Leaders voiced their concern at that time about the AFL’s commitment to the party and won assurances from labor officials that they are on the same team.

One well-placed Democratic aide said Democratic leaders’ concerns re-emerged after they heard labor officials “were giving money” to Republicans again this cycle and as a result “want to make it clear that this is a two-way street and we need to work together. Democrats have been there for labor, and we know labor has been there for us. We want that to continue.”

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the relationship between labor and House Democrats has “been pretty good” since the September meeting. He said leaders “always knew there are some Republicans the AFL would support, that has not been an issue.”

“I don’t think anyone’s really upset,” Matsui said. “I’m personally disappointed [about the AFL backing Republican candidates], but no one has really expressed being upset or unhappy about it.”

The AFL has supported moderate Republicans for some time but has consistently given more money to Democrats. This cycle, the AFL has given $5,500 in hard dollars to Congressional Republicans and $140,200 to Congressional Democrats.

Even so, Democratic aides say tensions are mounting, adding that leaders feel they push labor’s agenda consistently on key issues from workers’ compensation to overtime pay. And, they add, the climate has worsened because Bush is pushing “an anti-worker” agenda in Congress and moderate Republicans’ voting records aren’t matching their pro-labor talk.

“The ground has changed, the playing field has changed,” said one knowledgeable Democratic staffer.

Added one Democratic leadership aide: “If anything, the last few years has shown us there are no moderate Republicans, and every year these guys come to the Capitol in January and vote for the [Speaker Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.] and [Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] leadership.”

The AFL convention, which was scheduled to kick off today, will feature political speeches by Hoyer on Monday and Pelosi on Tuesday. Both leaders are expected to talk about the political landscape and how Democratic chances to take back the House are improving and how labor is crucial to the party’s success.

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.