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Storm of the Century

The state labor meeting in Manhattan Beach concluded Tuesday in an intricately staged photo op: Governor Gray Davis flanked by legendary farm worker union co-founder Dolores Huerta and state labor chief Art Pulaski. As the chants of “No Recall!” voiced by dozens of other union activists died down, Pulaski — not once but twice — made this startling announcement: “Gray Davis,” he shouted into the microphones, “is the best governor this state has had in a hundred years!” To bolster this political fiction, Pulaski’s staff passed out leaflets repeating the claim.

My, my — what conveniently short political memories some have.

Only a year ago, Huerta and Pulaski were among the hundreds of unionists who marched 11 days and 167 miles from Modesto to Sacramento through the heat of the Central Valley fields trying to shame the same Mr. Davis into doing the right thing. Even after successfully watering down a bill that put farm workers on more equal footing in negotiating with their powerful employers, Governor Davis had dithered for weeks without signing the measure. There was open fear he might even veto it.

As the protest march neared Sacramento, and with Davis still not giving in, Huerta — in spite of her advanced age — threatened to lead a hunger strike on the Capitol steps if that’s what it would take to get the governor to sign. Fearing a rush of embarrassing political theater in the midst of his re-election push, Davis finally relented and signed the bill.

As Huerta and Pulaski made that trek, I can’t imagine that at any moment either was thinking that Gray Davis was the “best governor” in history.

But all is now forgiven as labor once again scurries into the Democratic fold. At that Manhattan Beach meeting this week, 500 delegates of statewide labor voted unanimously to spend $5 million or so in members’ funds to oppose the recall of Davis, to publish and distribute millions of campaign mailers on his behalf, to organize 3 million phone calls and hundreds of thousands of “one-on-one” meetings with fellow unionists, and to mobilize thousands of local staff and volunteers in a get-out-the-vote effort to vote “no” on October 7.

Oh yeah. And the gathered unions also endorsed Cruz Bustamante. At least, I think they did.

The assembled delegates, again “unanimously” and behind closed doors, voted to support the so-called No/Yes formula that’s been gaining acceptance by panicked Democratic leaders: No on the recall. And Yes on Bustamante, just in case recall passes.

Yet, when Pulaski gave his post-convention statement to the press, the words Cruz Bustamante never crossed his lips. We’d have never known that Cruz was getting the support of the State Federation unless we had asked.

Kind of odd for a candidate that just got the endorsement of 2.1 million California workers. Service Employees International vice president Eliseo Medina was emphatic. “We are absolutely not going to make any calls saying only ‘Yes on Bustamante,’” he told the Weekly. The union nod to Cruz, said a number of the labor leaders, will be little more than a “tag line” in the blizzard of forthcoming union campaign fliers. Some kind of support!

 

Poor Cruz would also be well-served to open wide the spigot of his traditional Indian casino funding stream as he’s also not very likely to get much union cash. “All of our resources are committed to the No on the Recall,” said Pulaski flatly when asked how much dough labor has earmarked for Cruz.

California labor has put itself in a rather absurd and twisted-up position, but one substantially of its own making. If labor had taken more distance from Davis over the past five years it might have been able to generate and lead a more progressive pole within the Democratic Party. It might have even had a real candidate of its own ready to step in and replace the tarnished Davis now that he’s threatened with a no-confidence recall.

But the vacuum created by labor and other Democratic liberals who went along to get along with Davis, left the field wide open for the lackluster and conservative candidacy of Cruz. Remember that Cruz openly defied the unions’ earlier warnings that any Democrat who entered the recall race and legitimized it would merit their political punishment. Cruz lumbered in and called the union bluff.

Now, labor’s stuck — supporting a sinking Davis, half-assedly supporting conservative Cruz yet simultaneously loathing and shunning him for having entered the race in the first place. Nice going, guys. Maybe next you want to straighten out all that confusion over in Baghdad.

A little unprincipled opportunism here and there should surprise nobody. I also understand why labor might prefer any Democrat over a Republican governor. But Pulaski and the State Fed’s crowning this week of Gray Davis as the “best governor” in a century is downright intellectually offensive and reflects very poorly on their own integrity. Back during last year’s election campaign, about half of his fellow Democrats had an unfavorable view of the governor.

But now we’re to believe that Gray Davis is a better governor than, say, Pat Brown — who opened the doors of a world-class educational system to the working class? Or better than Jerry Brown who, among other feats, created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board which, in turn, laid the legal foundation for farm worker contracts?

Or better than Culbert Olson? The former farmhand, the atheist populist, who took office in 1934, and whose very first act was to free framed-up trade unionist Tom Mooney from prison? Olson, whose mother was a suffragette, who fought for public control of power utilities, who tried to introduce an advanced New Deal in California that would, in his words, provide “economic security from the cradle to the grave”? Olson is now second to Gray Davis? Compare the biographies of Olson and Davis and decide for yourself who, indeed, was a Great Governor and who is a political pipsqueak.