Political Intelligence

Union Brawls and Down-Ballot Dispatches



Conventional wisdom is taking a beating this primary. Texas Democrats don’t matter in presidential contests, they said. They do this year. Unions are obsolete in the Lone Star State, they said. Not when it comes to the March 4 presidential primary.

While many expect that the most political activity by a union outside of the Iowa caucus this Democratic presidential primary season will occur in Ohio, Texas could well be third in importance. A number of unions have parachuted organizers into the state to mobilize their memberships on behalf of either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. The two current heavyweights in this fight are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for Clinton and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for Obama.

In some ways, the campaign is an extension of an historic conflict between the two. SEIU has a reputation for aggressive organizing; AFSCME has complained that its rival union has tried to poach its members. In 2005, they signed a two-year pact that, according to AFSCME, forbade either side from “raiding, decertifying or otherwise interfering with existing representation rights of our members.”

AFSCME may have as many as 100 organizers fanning out around Texas, according to one union source. The pressure is on AFSCME president Gerald McEntee to deliver a victory for Clinton and silence the rumbling within his own ranks over past mistakes. In 2004, AFSCME invested resources and gave a high-profile endorsement to Howard Dean. After the infamous scream and the implosion of the Dean candidacy, McEntee told The New York Times he thought Dean was “nuts.”

Expect AFSCME to be in overdrive for Clinton throughout the campaign. Joining AFSCME for Team Clinton will be the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, and the machinists, bricklayers, and painters. Together they represent approximately 90,000 members in Texas.

National SEIU formally endorsed Obama as the Observer went to press. The union has locals in Houston, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley. A SEIU spokesperson said they didn’t know how many organizers would be on the ground yet, but that the campaign would involve media as well as grassroots efforts, including activities by members in the Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston.

The Metroplex could be the biggest labor battleground in the state. A Texas Credit Union League poll showed Democrats in the Dallas-Fort Worth area split between the two candidates. The Obama campaign has opened three offices in the area.


It was not lost on politicos in the Rio Grande Valley that state Rep. Aaron Peña was the first to announce Hillary Clinton’s arrival to the area. Peña says that he has raised money for the Clintons in the past and has known them for years. He is also close to former land commissioner Garry Mauro, who had lined up early endorsements in the Valley for the New York senator. Peña says that since Clinton didn’t have anyone on the ground, he filled in, but took a back seat once her campaign became more established.

Peña needs all the boost he can get from Clinton’s support and star power in his grudge rematch with challenger Eddie Saenz to represent District 40. Saenz has also endorsed Clinton and boasts that four out of five mayors in the district have endorsed him. He believes that the high turnout expected in the primary will benefit him. “Our theme is change and a new direction, and this is helping me out,” he says.

The incumbent, Peña, counterintuitively, is painting Saenz as part of a political machine. He says higher turnout will help him overcome those “who are paid to vote.”

When they last locked horns in the 2004 primary, Saenz hit Peña from the right for not getting enough done. Peña painted his opponent as a closet Republican. Then the incumbent signed on with Republican Speaker Tom Craddick. Now, Saenz, an engineer and successful businessman, has attacked Peña for being too close to leadership. “He has become what he accused me of being,” Saenz says. “Austin is trying to dictate rather than us going up to Austin and trying to get what we need.”

Saenz is already pointing to the campaign cash his opponent has received from Republican contributors outside the district. “I don’t believe the House of Representatives ought to be a millionaires’ club,” says Peña. “I have to take money where I can.”


Loyalties are funny things. One of the most competitive Democratic races this primary is for House District 140. Incumbent Kevin Bailey, a longtime liberal, has supported Republican Speaker Tom Craddick. He’s a charter member of the so-called Craddick Ds. Plenty of money from Craddick’s corporate cronies has found its way to Bailey. Last session Bailey managed to get a key labor provision passed into law that is giving unions their first shot at collective bargaining for municipal workers in Houston. The unions are promising to return the favor and provide manpower for his re-election.

The Texas Trial Lawyers have backed his opponent, a young up-and-comer born and raised in the district named Armando Walle. “[The trial lawyers] let me know in May that if I didn’t vote to take Craddick out I’d have an opponent,” Bailey says.

Walle previously worked for the area’s Democratic Congressman Gene Green, who grew disgusted with Bailey when the representative failed to show for a key vote on a controversial mid-decade congressional redistricting plan. Walle accuses Bailey of missing more than 300 votes.

The district is more than 70 percent Latino and records some of the lowest turnouts in the state. It’s expected that the surge in interest in the presidential primary, including efforts by the unions to turn out Latinos for Sen. Hillary Clinton, will help Walle.

In addition to the pioneering collective bargaining provision, Bailey touts his role in bringing water and sewer service for the first time to several neighborhoods in his district, as well as new sidewalks and more money for crime prevention. Walle hammers him on his tacit support for a Republican agenda that has cost children health insurance and underfunded schools. “[Voters] know leadership in Austin has failed them and my opponent has been propping up the leadership.”

Bailey casts his support for Craddick in terms of pragmatism. “I am trying to get the best deal I can for people until Democrats are in the majority,” he says.


After several weeks of daring U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega, 50, to a debate, his Democratic rival for the seat, Ray McMurrey, finally got his wish on February 13.

It was about 45 minutes into their debate on the UT campus before Noriega mentioned McMurrey. Instead, Noriega stuck to talking points blasting the Republican incumbent, Sen. John Cornyn, treating the occasion as a practice run for a general election debate.

McMurrey, 42, a Corpus Christi teacher, presented himself as the candidate for change. He modeled himself after former U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a champion of civil rights and Great Society legislation. “I am a citizen candidate that is running against politics as usual,” said McMurrey.

Noriega’s debating skills were stilted at best. The state representative wandered off into the rhetorical wilderness at times, finding his way back only when speaking about his extensive military experience. McMurrey seemed like a debating whiz in comparison. But then, McMurrey makes his living speaking in front of people (he teaches government at a high school).

The debate centered on eight questions, ranging from when to leave Iraq to health care reform. A lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard, Noriega fought in Afghanistan and helped with aid operations in Houston after Katrina. The audience cheered wildly after he answered a question about his timeline for the Iraq war: “Not one more drop of American blood is going to alter Iraq,” he said. Noriega promised to work toward bringing back the troops in stages, but did not specify a timetable.

McMurrey received his share of applause when he said he would advocate bringing 10,000 to 15,000 troops home every month for the next 15 months. Despite scoring some debating points, McMurrey doesn’t have Noriega’s grassroots support and political résumé. As of mid-February, McMurrey had no political endorsements and only $16,000 in his campaign account. Noriega, a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1999, has slogged through political events and appearances for the past year. He has also received more than 150 endorsements from national and state Democratic groups and legislators. Now if his presentation could only live up to his résumé.


New Mexico took nine days to count its presidential primary ballots. Texans are nervously looking to their neighboring state and wondering what record voter turnout will portend here. While it might not be as bad as the Land of Enchantment mark our words: There will be trouble on March 4. And bet on the problems adding further fuel to the fight over a proposed voter ID law that would require people to show photo identification before voting.

A nine-hour, special midterm meeting of the House Elections Committee held on January 26 already demonstrated that Texas Republicans and Democrats are digging in for another party-line battle over voter ID in 2009. Since the end of the last session, when a voter ID bill narrowly died in the Senate, supporters have been rounding up election fraud anecdotes from county clerks and district attorneys around the state to back up their case. Tyler Republican Rep. Leo Berman’s committee showcased some of that work. And once again Democratic Reps. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Lon Burnam of Fort Worth pointed out there was little evidence of fraud at polling places (most problems involved mail-in ballot scams or vote-harvesting at registration).

Always politely ignored in the public debate is the nationwide GOP push for voter ID, which many suspect is coming from the top of the hierarchical party. While Texas Republicans never shied away from turning voting mechanisms to their favor (Picasso would love the 2003 redistricting map’s proportions), our little state is just one among many where alleged voter fraud suddenly has politicians hot and bothered.

A Supreme Court decision on an Indiana voter ID law-tougher even than proposals by Berman and Terrell Republican Rep. Betty Brown-is expected this summer. While those against the photo ID mandate point to the law’s potential to disenfranchise legal voters, the court is considering whether people must have already been denied their right to vote before they can challenge the law.

The one sign of possible progress at the committee hearing was a proposal to let voters submit a signature verification if they don’t have an ID. Anchia, who’s leading the Democratic charge against voter ID, called it an interesting proposal, but worried that signature-backup in a House bill could easily be stripped later in the process. “We’d need assurances from the Senate to ensure it would come back without voter-suppression amendments,” he said after the meeting.