Both sides on EFCA set sights on Bennet

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Officially, it’s called the Employee Free Choice Act. Republicans call it Card Check. No matter the name, it’s the hot political topic of 2009, and it could prove troublesome for Colorado’s newest senator, Democrat Michael Bennet.

At its heart, the EFCA eases union organization rules and, in theory, clears a path for organized labor to eliminate a secret ballot in elections on whether to unionize. Republicans and business leaders say union bosses will use the open voting process to intimidate voters they know oppose unionization.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue speaks to business leaders at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

Democrats and advocates of organized labor disagree, pointing to a provision in the act that would allow for a secret ballot if 30 percent of workers ask for one. They say it will level the playing field because business leaders currently are able to intimidate workers who favor unionization.

The truth — as in most politics — probably lays somewhere in the middle. And the middle is exactly where Bennet finds himself.

When the EFCA was introduced in Congress earlier this month, Bennet received a visit from Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who promised him that a “no” vote on the bill would diminish his support for re-election in 2010. Locally, Mike Cerbo, the executive director of AFL-CIO in Colorado, said his office has been in touch with Bennet. However, he wouldn’t go so far as to guarantee political retribution if Bennet opposes the measure.

“I just can’t give you an answer on that, as it’s not what we’re concentrating on right now,” Cerbo said. “We’re concentrating on informing the senators on the need for this legislation for the middle-class and for our country.”

On the other hand, the pressure — and promises — from the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been both clear and public, including vows of an expensive campaign blitz against Bennet in 2010 should he vote in favor the bill.

“This is a deal for taking names. And if you want to vote (for) this, you’re going to have an election next time that you’re not going to like,” Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber told Colorado business leaders last week during a stop in Denver.

“And, I am not talking about all 100 members of the Senate... I am talking about that group of 10 to 13 people who are in the middle,” he added. “The bottom line is, we are going to play the same game (labor) is going to play, but we are going to play it better and more expensively.”

Unlike Colorado’s other Democratic congressional members, who were forced to take a position on the EFCA during the 2008 campaign, Bennet was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter in January to fill the remaining term of Sen. Ken Salazar and has yet to be forced into taking a public position.

“My focus right now is on the many decisions we must make to create good-paying jobs, jumpstart our economy and prepare our kids for the 21st century,” Bennet said in a prepared statement for The Colorado Statesman. “This bill was recently introduced, and I will work with all interested parties to make the best decision for Colorado.”

Bennet is not a typical Democrat, though. He has been targeted by both labor and business groups since arriving in Congress because both feel they can appeal to his middle-of-the-road tendencies.

Democrats hope voters will view Bennet — a former executive for Phil Anschutz and superintendent of Denver Public Schools who has never run for public office — as a moderate with appeal to the business community. Furthermore, Bennet, along with Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, recently joined a working group of moderate Senate Democrats.

The move irked many on the left in the Democratic Party but could help solidify his position as a middle-of-the-road candidate.

However, when it comes to the EFCA, experts say, Bennet has no easy choice.

Observers agree that most voters will not view the EFCA as a campaign issue by November 2010. However, the issue will help define the nation’s newly elected politicians and could affect their ability to raise funds. If he were to oppose the bill, Bennet might find it hard to attract union campaign donations, or he could see organized labor get behind another Democrat — possibly one Ritter passed up to appoint Bennet — in order to wage an expensive primary.

On the other hand, if he votes for the legislation, Bennet risks losing his image as the business-friendly Democrat, and he could see anti-labor forces pour millions of dollars into a 2010 GOP campaign against him.

“Given any chance, Bennet will avoid this topic,” said Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst, adding Bennet is seen by many as the voice of the business community in the Democratic Party.

“He is the new kid on the block who hasn’t yet faced the voters, and so everyone is leaning on him to show them that he is one of them. Labor is saying that. Business is saying that. So my supposition is that Bennet will keep his (views) on EFCA private for as long as possible,” Sondermann said.

Republicans in Colorado have not wasted time attacking Bennet for staying on the sidelines.

“Labor union bosses ought to think about what they have in this guy,” Colorado Republican Chair Dick Wadhams told The Statesman.

“The fact that he can’t come to a decision and he doesn’t know what he believes should be a problem for both sides of this issue,” Wadhams continued. “This shouldn’t be a hard call. You’re either for it, or you are against it. And it raises questions about his competence to be a U.S. senator that he can’t say which he is.”

Some of the business communities, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, say they understand why Bennet isn’t taking a stand and hope it could signal that he is still truly undecided.

“(Moderate) Democrats aren’t going to come out against this right now,” Donohue told business leaders in Denver Friday, adding that until a vote is near it would be unwise to take a stand.

“If you come out against this today, you are going to have union people in your office, outside your home, everywhere you go for weeks or months… So I am not upset that Bennet has not come out on the issue,” he said.

Coloradans might not be either. A recent poll indicated most residents favor workers and the right to organize, although they also have a dim view of union bosses, said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

“I don’t think the public is very concerned about this issue and is mildly in labor’s camp,” Ciruli said. “This state is not anti-labor. It defeated right-to-work and passed a generous minimum wage into the Constitution.”

But that doesn’t make Bennet’s decision easy. Unlike Udall, who also hasn’t taken a position on the EFCA, Bennet lacks a solid Democratic base and has more to lose by supporting the legislation.

“It’s going to be a battle, and I think obviously what (Bennet) would like to do is come up with some compromise, some adjustment, so that he can say it was made more palatable for business,” Ciruli said. “Now, whether he can do that, though, is yet to be seen.”

Enter Udall.

Although Udall supported the EFCA when he was running against Republican Bob Schaffer last fall, his support has been less pronounced since he took office in January. When contacted by The Statesman this week, Udall’s spokeswoman, Tara Trujillo, said the Eldorado Springs senator is reviewing the legislation and considering all points of view before coming to a final decision.

Political insiders and some in the blogosphere say Udall eventually will support the EFCA, but that he has concerns over the focus that has been placed on the secret ballot provision. They say he’s hoping for a compromise.

With a leadership position in his party and membership in the new working group of moderate Senate Democrats, Udall could be in a position to help craft amendments to the legislation — amendments that could make it easier for Bennet, and other moderate Democrats, to support the bill.

The bill, as it stands, is expected to pass the House of Representatives but could hit a snag in the Senate, where partisan legislation is always harder to push. Although there seem to be enough votes to get the bill onto the floor, it’s unlikely it will garner 60 co-sponsors, which is what labor leaders and Democrats would prefer.

“This is a close battle with some advantage for labor because there are more Democrats in Congress,” Ciruli said. “But it appears the business coalition is in the hunt, and if they can’t stop it, they can argue for a compromise, and they might find some success with that.”

And, for moderate Democrats such as Bennet, the final vote could come down to public perception and the
political consequence of voting either way.

“I think business has clearly won the early message wars around this issue and as long as this is framed as a secret ballot debate labor will be pushing an uphill battle in Colorado,” Sondermann said. “And, yes, while labor holds considerable sway in the Democratic Party and controls the purse-strings, this is not an issue that holds well with suburban voters who have been key Democratic victories. I don’t know if this is a slam dunk either way.”

Apparently, neither does Bennet.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com