Democrats, Unions Work Side-by-Side
By LARRY MARGASAK and JOHN SOLOMON, Associated Press Writers
July 19, 2001
WASHINGTON (AP) - Documents that the Democratic Party and unions have sued to keep secret reveal a campaign strategy in which labor and party officials served side-by-side on committees that directed the Democrats' election activities in each state.
While labor's support of Democrats is well known, the documents show labor leaders had veto power over Democratic Party plans in 1996 by virtue of their large donations and seats on the steering committees in each state.
“When the DNC and its National partners including ... the AFL-CIO and the NEA (National Education Association) agree on the contents of a plan, each national partner will give their funding commitment to the state,” an internal DNC memo titled “Rules of Engagement” said.
Lawrence Noble, the nation's former top election regulator, told The Associated Press on Thursday he was surprised by the degree of control unions held over Democratic decisions. Noble headed the investigation into GOP charges of illegal coordination between the unions and Democrats.
“The AFL had a certain amount of control over what political parties and candidates did. That is what is striking,” Noble said.
The AFL-CIO donated $35 million in 1996.
At the request of the Democratic Party and labor unions, a federal judge has forbidden the Federal Election Commission from releasing the documents it gathered during its four-year probe.
AP obtained the documents from officials involved in various federal investigations of unions and from groups that got some documents when they were briefly released by the FEC this spring, then abruptly pulled from public display under threat of litigation.
The documents detail extensive discussions between labor and party leaders on how to contact, register and influence voters to support Democrats and show where unions in some instances drew their money to accomplish the mission.
In one case, a New York hospital workers union, Local 1199, spent $250,000 from its strike defense fund for a $2.7 million effort called the '96 Project' aimed at holding congressional Republicans accountable for their support of Newt Gingrich's “Contract with America,” the records show.
Frequently, officials from the Democratic Party or its congressional fund-raising arms contacted union officials to seek approval for election activities.
For instance, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official Rob Engel wrote AFL-CIO political official Steve Rogers in September 1996 to discuss phone banks and direct mail efforts aimed at identifying voters and getting them to the polls in 16 target congressional districts.
“We request the AFL-CIO review these budgets and programs. If you approve them, we ask that you encourage your affiliated unions to contribute to each congressional district coordinated campaign,” Engel wrote.
DCCC operatives followed up a few days later with a second memo. “Attached is our updated and improved requests for your big bucks,” it said.
Around the time, the AFL-CIO ran ads in several of the same congressional districts portraying Republican candidates as out of touch with worker issues and Democrats as union-friendly, the FEC concluded.
John Hiatt, AFL-CIO general counsel, acknowledged the union had veto power over Democratic activities it helped finance.
“For aspects of campaigns we subsidize, I think we would want veto power,” Hiatt said. “We may have veto power over issues or aspects we're working on, as other groups the Democrats are working with would want to keep control over things they're working on.”
In North Carolina, the documents show, state AFL-CIO President Chris Scott and North Carolina NEA President John Wilson each served on the management committee that handled day-to-day operations.
In Nebraska, the state party gave AFL-CIO and teachers union officials similar positions on its executive committee alongside officials from Ben Nelson's Senate campaign and other candidates. A state party memo said “labor will play a key role” in a party-run effort to contact 150,000 households twice during the fall campaign.
The national blueprint for the coordinated campaigns stated flatly that before state parties could implement their election plans they had to be “submitted with a signature page which demonstrates the formal sign off of the principal players for each representative of the Steering Committee.”
The contacts were so extensive that Noble, the FEC's chief lawyer, initially concluded the two sides had illegally coordinated. The commission eventually abandoned that finding and closed the case after a federal judge ruled in an unrelated case that such coordination may be protected by First Amendment free speech.
But the FEC's final report, stamped “sensitive,” still concluded that the AFL-CIO had “apparent veto power” over the Democrats' election decisions in the states. The unions had the “authority to approve or disapprove plans, projects and needs of the DNC and its state parties with respect to the coordinated campaign,” the report said.
Noble said he thinks the FEC should have appealed the court ruling and punished the Democrats and the unions for illegal coordination.
Noble said business groups allied with Republicans also have growing clout in elections. “You have a political system in large part controlled by special interests, whether it be AFL on one side with Democrats, or business interests with the Republicans,” he said.
In addition to each state party's coordinated committee, the DNC created a national steering committee that included party officials, a representative of the Clinton-Gore campaign as well as two officials from the AFL-CIO, one from the NEA and one from the Emily's List political action committee.
DNC general counsel Joseph Sandler told the FEC that the national committee met six or eight times to develop and implement the coordinated campaigns, as well as discuss financing.