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Famous Victories

I. CLASS WAR AND OTHER BIG DEALS

In the end, what really doomed Proposition 226 in Tuesday's primary election was its pedigree: This was a measure that, politically, came from nowhere.

That is, 226 didn't emerge out of a mass discontent with unions or with union political-action programs, which it sought to decimate. With the labor movement reduced to representing just 14 percent of the work force, the percentage of Americans with a visceral dislike of unions has correspondingly dwindled as well: It's hard to hate that which you don't even encounter. More positively, the public perception of unions has taken a modest upturn in the three years since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO, during which labor has increasingly focused on such popular causes as raising the minimum wage and campaigning against sweatshops.

So, unlike Proposition 227 - which is the misshapen expression of a genuinely widespread lack of confidence in bilingual education and the public schools generally, as well as of a nativist uneasiness at the growing multiculturalism of California - Proposition 226 neither arose from nor was rooted in a public clamor to do something about a social problem. To the contrary, it arose from a very select clamor: that of Republican leaders and strategists, who were shaken by the scope and effectiveness of the union effort during the '96 campaign. And nowhere had the movement been more active and effective than in California, where labor mobilized thousands of volunteers who enabled the Democrats to win back the Assembly.

It's no mystery, then, what led Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime strategist and henchman for Newt Gingrich, to fund the drive that put 226 on the ballot, and to develop plans to run parallel campaigns all across the nation. As the Republicans saw it, the time to dismantle labor's newfound political clout was now, before it had the opportunity to become even more proficient at waging campaigns and to cultivate a new generation of political organizers.

What this meant, however, was that 226 was rooted in nothing more than a strategic conceit, as the dearth of volunteers working on its behalf made abundantly clear. Arrayed against it was a constituency that felt its very life was on the line: that without the ability to engage in politics, the American labor movement would shrivel and die. In the campaign just completed, labor had both the resources and the passion on its side, a combination that in politics is almost always unbeatable.

It was, of course, the "Yes" campaign that looked unbeatable for many months preceding the vote. As recently as February, 226 was leading in the Field Poll by a 71-to-22-percent margin. At first glance, the measure seemed all but unarguable within the Jeffersonian framework of American politics: Requiring unions to obtain the annual permission of members to use a small portion of their dues on politics seemed reasonable enough. At second glance, however, the measure virtually mandated a shift in the balance of class power in California politics, for it was only unions that were required to seek such permission: Other membership groups weren't so obliged. Corporations, say, which already outspent unions by an 11-1 margin, were not required to seek approval from shareholders.

The Norquist coven accuses labor of waging a deceptive campaign against 226. In fact, labor did largely refrain from debating the question of the rights of individual members, although when it engaged the issue, it noted that members already have the right, under the Supreme Court's Beck decision, to withhold the portion of their dues that goes to politics, and that the turnover rate of local union leadership is high enough to suggest that discontent with union policies does not go unregistered. But the core of labor's campaign, which addressed the aggregate effects of erasing unions from California's political landscape, was entirely on point. The privatization of education, the continued export of jobs and the reduction in the pressure for HMO reform - three of the issues that the "No" campaign highlighted in its ads - were all predictable consequences of 226's enactment.

For all that, the "No on 226" campaign took some time to get on track - and particularly, the campaign that the AFL-CIO waged to turn around the vote of its own members. In the February Field Poll, fully 67 percent of union-household voters expressed support for the measure. In the late-May Field Poll, 68 percent said they were opposed. The epochal effort to reverse the union vote began in earnest in mid-March, when the national AFL-CIO sent Arlene Holt - once the California director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, more recently an official at the AFL-CIO's Washington headquarters - to coordinate the unions' campaign here. Holt spearheaded the activities of more than 50 full-time coordinators that various unions donated to the campaign - a group, drawn from the new generation of Sweeney-era organizers, that was disproportionately young, female and nonwhite. They coordinated a campaign that, by Holt's estimate, sent at least eight pieces of mail to all AFL-CIO members in the state, reached 500,000 of them by phone and hundreds of thousands more through precinct walks. Which is to say, for all the money that labor ponied up, the "No on 226" campaign was also hugely labor-intensive. "We can't put a dollar value," said Holt at one East L.A. campaign rally last Sunday, "on all the volunteers."  

Sunday's rally afforded a glimpse of some of those volunteers. About 100 red-shirted members of the United Farm Workers stood alongside about 50 purple-T-shirted members of the Service Employees and perhaps 50 other union volunteers, chanting in the noontime break between precinct walks. At the same time, similar rallies were taking place in other locations around L.A., since labor had targeted five Assembly districts within the county in which to concentrate its efforts. In the last four days of the campaign, roughly 2,500 unionists turned out in these districts to carry literature door-to-door and to talk with the union members who lived along the route. Still another core of volunteers staffed the five phone banks, with between 60 and 100 phones apiece, that the unions had put together for the campaign.

The Eastside effort had particular significance for the L.A. County Federation of Labor's ongoing efforts to mobilize newly registered immigrant voters. In this East L.A.-Alhambra-Monterey Park Assembly district, labor was campaigning not just against 226, but also for Gloria Romero, a longtime labor-left activist who was embroiled in a hotly contested election for an open Assembly seat. The unionists who turned out for the Sunday walk were part of a campaign to reach not just the district's 9,000 union members, but also the 14,000 newly naturalized voters who'd registered over the last 18 months - an effort modeled on labor's successful campaign last winter to elect Gil Cedillo to a downtown-area Assembly seat on the strength of union and immigrant voters.

By Wednesday morning, it was clear that labor's efforts, both in one Assembly district and across the state, had paid off big-time. In the race for the Eastside Assembly seat, Romero swept to victory. Statewide, 226 was defeated by a 54-to-46-percent margin, and L.A. County rejected it by a 60-40 margin - the fourth highest "No" vote among the state's 58 counties, a stunning achievement for the local labor movement. A statewide poll of AFL-CIO members conducted on election night showed that 71 percent had voted against 226 - and union members familiar with their union's position opposed it by an 81 to 19 percent margin. Perhaps most impressive - indeed, astonishing - was the finding of the CNN/L.A. Times exit poll that fully one-third of Tuesday's voters came from union households. In a state where the rate of unionization is just 18 percent, that means labor's mobilization of its own members succeeded on a scale seldom achieved in elections.

Proposition 226 was the most serious attempt to shift the balance of class forces in American politics in decades. Its defeat attests to the remarkable success that the Sweeney-era labor movement has had in reconstructing its political program and political clout (even while its efforts to revive the culture of organizing still have a long way to go). The hope inside the labor movement is that its efforts against 226 have positioned unions to wage even more effective campaigns in the years to come. "Grover Norquist and Pete Wilson did us a favor," Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern observed during the Eastside rally on Sunday. "They woke up the movement and connected it to our members. I've never seen so many members phoning and walking precincts - and we have to find a way to build on this in November and beyond."

II. THE GOVERNOR'S RACE AND OTHER TRIVIALITIES

It is time, I suspect, to bid farewell to the economic stimulus (at least for California TV stations) and political candidate known as Al Checchi. While Jane Harman has established herself as a plausible candidate for some future statewide contests, Al Checchi finishes the campaign with a political future that - as Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles' future in Touch of Evil - "is all used up."

In the end, Checchi got less bang for his buck than any statewide candidate in California history: By my calculations, Checchi probably ended up paying at least $55 per vote in Tuesday's primary. (Gray Davis, by contrast, paid about $4.50 per vote.) On a number of levels, Checchi ran an admirable campaign - most especially, in his Robert Kennedy-like appeal to low-income and nonwhite voters. But Bobby Kennedy brought to his campaign a record of intense and high-level engagement in the civil rights and economic-justice issues of his time. Checchi combined the strategy of Robert Kennedy with an attempt to evoke the manner of John Kennedy and with the record - or should I say baggage - of old Joe Kennedy. It didn't take.  

Even worse, it will not be Checchi's Kennedy-like platform for which he'll be remembered. Checchi may have been just the latest of thousands of candidates to go negative on his opponents, but only Checchi had the resources to transform a campaign tactic into an act of indelible self-definition: Al Checchi will forever be linked to negative campaigning. It's a gratuitously sad end for his brief political career. He coulda' been a contender; instead, he got a one-way ticket to Palooka Estates.

Invested with whatever mystique attends the tortoise who beats the hare, Gray Davis emerges from his smashing victory in Tuesday's primary with a decent shot at becoming California's first Democratic governor since his old boss, Jerry Brown. That Brown connection, surely, is a cross that Republican nominee Dan Lungren will force Davis to bear, though Davis is so boringly straight and centrist that he may be able to inoculate himself against charges of his complicity in Jerry's presumed eccentricities. Davis' record of headlong zeal in the cause of fund-raising for himself, however, presents Lungren with another, more plausible avenue of attack.

For his part, Davis will go after Lungren for his anti-choice positions and his lackadaisical enforcement of the state's assault-weapons ban. But there's another chink in Lungren's armor that Davis would do well to take aim at. In the debate that the four gubernatorial aspirants took part in at the L.A. Times, Lungren was the sole candidate who didn't favor increasing starting salaries for teachers: What the young people who go into teaching really needed, he insisted, was "respect." Lungren's reluctance to spend the money it will take to raise the quality of teachers may provide Davis a wedge he can drive between Lungren's ideology and the voters' common sense. Forty-six percent of voters in Tuesday's CNN/L.A. Times exit poll listed education as their primary concern, while just 28 percent of voters listed crime. That gives Davis a built-in advantage over Lungren - provided he's willing to make a clearer commitment than he has thus far to boosting the resources the state puts into its schools.

Clearly, any primary in which Gray Davis, fund-raising automaton, ends up as the populist alternative to big-money candidates is a damn strange election. Nonetheless, the voters' rejection of the Checchi, Harman and Darrell Issa campaigns on Tuesday provided a resounding defeat for the power of money, just as their rejection of Proposition 226 signaled a resounding victory for working-class power. That's not shabby for any primary, any year.

Research assistance by Christine Pelisek

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