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WA Senate: Playing the ‘Big Union’ card

Dino Rossi and state Republicans are leveling a charge against Patty Murray that Republicans often use on Democrats, that she’s kowtowing to the union bosses. But they may have picked the wrong backdrop to launch this attack.

As recounted today by S-R reporter Chelsea Bannach, the Spokane Labor Rally, a biannual feature of the local political scene, was held Wednesday at the Spokane County Fairgrounds.

For those unfamiliar with the labor rally, it’s a chance for union members, their spouses, kids and miscellaneous family members and friends to have some food and drink after work while listening to candidates the unions’ endorse – mostly Democrats – make a pitch for votes and news media types try to take the temperature of the blue collar voters.

(There is a myth among the state’s political reporters that a chili dog ingested at the Labor Rally will sit uncomfortably in one’s stomach until election day. This is not true; it has never been known to last past Halloween. And Beth Thew of the Spokane Labor Council advises that there weren’t any chili dogs at Wednesday’s rally, but there were veggie burgers. One has to wonder what the labor movement is coming to. But I digress...)

Murray, as the most visible Democrat on the Washington ballot, spoke about jobs from getting the tanker contract for Boeing and building the North Spokane corridor. She hadn’t even walked to the microphone, however, when Rossi’s allies at the state Republican Party were blasting her appearance.
In a press release from Bellevue, the state GOP detailed how unions had given her large sums of money over the years, and she had supported their legislation like Card Check and health care reform. (All true). “Murray Rallies Big Union Donors Instead of Working to Create Real Jobs for Washington” it said.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that the Senate is out of session, so there's not much Murray or any member of Congress could be doing right not to "create jobs", let's acknowledge that the GOP and organized labor have been at odds for decades. There’s plenty of earned ill will on both sides. Republican candidates rarely get an invite to the labor rally, so perhaps the state GOP can be forgiven for not quite knowing what this is.
Or rather, what it is not. It’s not “Big Union”. It’s kids in a bouncy castle and adults shooting the breeze over sodas or beers (and none of that froo-froo micro stuff. Bud or Bud Light.)
It’s really the kind of union voters with whom Rossi and other Republicans need to make inroads to win in this state. The kind of union voters that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan captured in winning and keeping the White House.
There’s probably no one hanging around at GOP HQ in Bellevue who remembers this, but in the fall of 1984, Republicans decided to reach into the election play book and blast the Democratic nominee for governor, as a tool of “the Big Labor Bosses.”
At the time, labor was really luke warm to Booth Gardner. Most unions had backed Jim McDermott in the September primary and, as a Weyerhaeuser heir with wonky MBA credentials, Gardner wasn’t exactly a working-class hero. At least not until the state GOP cranked up its anti-union rhetoric in support of Gov. John Spellman.
Suddenly the rank and file began sporting “Hi! I’m a Big Labor Boss” buttons. Gardner pinned on his first at the Spokane Labor Rally. His union support solidified and the last Republican governor elected in Washington was a month away from being out of a job.
Spellman didn’t lose just because of the union vote; he was down 125,000 votes in the final count, while Reagan won the state by almost 200,000. No way to quantify this, but it’s safe to say that a bunch of union folks voted for Reagan but didn’t vote for Spellman, who didn’t need the state GOP kicking the hornet’s nest.
 If this year’s U.S. Senate contest is as close as many think, Rossi and the state GOP might want to cogitate a bit more on the best way to play the "Big Union" card.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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