If politics is akin to nature, the Proposition 226 campaign was like trying to exterminate a hornet’s nest with a good, swift kick.
The ballot measure offered by conservatives to weaken organized labor’s campaign clout in California--by requiring annual permission for unions to use members’ dues for political purposes--backfired on election day. Despite better than 2-to-1 support early in the campaign, the initiative experienced a convincing defeat under a swarm of political money and manpower from the unions it had sought to tame.
And the swarm may not be going away.
Leaders of organized labor said Wednesday that they will seek to use momentum from the unprecedented $23-million effort against the initiative--a proposition that has helped spark a flurry of similar measures in other states--to carry forth into California’s gubernatorial contest in November.
Democrats, meanwhile, were chortling that the measure’s loss was a blow to the presidential aspirations of Gov. Pete Wilson, who made the fight for Proposition 226 a personal crusade.
Defeat of the nationally publicized measure, which voters rejected by a margin of 53.5% to 46.5%, also could chill similar initiative efforts being waged in other states.
“Republicans back in Washington figured this was their wedge issue for 1998,” said Gale Kaufman, the Sacramento political consultant who led the fight against Proposition 226. “Now they’ve got to be sitting back scratching their heads and saying, ‘Where do we go now?’ ”
Boosters of the measure, who say they were outspent at least 10 to 1 by the unions, remained outwardly undeterred Wednesday, boldly predicting that the issue will resurface.
“If I have anything to do with it, it’s going to happen again in June 2000,” said Mark Bucher, who crafted the measure, which backers described as seeking “paycheck protection.” Wilson also said the movement would not wither, declaring to a Republican breakfast gathering Wednesday, “I have bad news for the unions--this is going to go on. This was Round 1.”
‘A Modern Political Miracle’
In Washington on Wednesday, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the outcome “a modern political miracle” that sent “a clear message about the prospects” of similar efforts in other states. “This vote shows that the nationally coordinated effort by Newt Gingrich, [anti-union activist] Grover Norquist and Pete Wilson to take working families out of the political process is a clear loser.”
Sweeney said labor unions have “gained new strength and momentum for a pro-working family agenda heading into the fall elections.” He said thousands of new union activists emerged during the campaign against Proposition 226.
“These were people who had never been involved in a political campaign,” Sweeney said. “There is every indication that they’re going to be here for the longer haul.”
He also predicted that the vote on Proposition 226 could deter proponents from resurrecting the initiative. “If they bring this again or in other states, they’re going to get the same response,” Sweeney said. “The education that we did on this one is going to be helpful in future efforts. They should understand that this was won by the workers in California.”
Norquist, whose Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform is spearheading the national drive to restrict the political use of union dues, said efforts will be redoubled in states with looming ballot measures, such as Nevada, Oregon and Colorado.
“It won’t discourage our team,” he said. “We had a conference call this morning with legislative leaders in 30 states, and everybody was gung-ho and ready to go.”
But others on his side of the fence thought that Norquist himself was too big a target in the debate. He and another backer of Proposition 226, Indiana insurance executive J. Patrick Rooney, were attacked by the measure’s foes in TV commercials for their conservative political beliefs. Rooney, for example, is a longtime champion of school vouchers.
“A lot of Republicans are scratching their heads and trying to find people who ran that thing from a 50-point lead to defeat,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican political consultant. “There is a lesson to be learned from this--that we needed this to be a referendum on union democracy, not on our movement activists.”
Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll, said there is evidence that the initiative stirred union members to vote. The Times exit poll found that 35% of all voters in Tuesday’s election said they came from a union household, compared to 29% in the June 1994 election. And it was those additional union members who provided the margin for the proposition’s defeat.
“I think these union members were energized by their leaders,” Pinkus said. The leaders “spent millions and millions of dollars to get out the vote and to get the public to vote no. It worked.”
Among voters who said they came from “union households,” 64% said they voted no on the proposition.
Democrats, women and minorities were more likely to vote against Proposition 226, according to results from the Times exit poll. According to the poll, 72% of Democrats said they voted no on the measure. Among Republicans, the numbers were reversed: 72% supported it.
Whites were the only ethnic group likely to support the initiative, with more than half of such voters casting ballots for it. The proposition was especially unpopular among Latinos at the polls, a full 75% of whom voted against it.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who did opinion surveys for the forces opposing the initiative, said the defeat would kill the national movement backing the issue.
“I think this idea is dead; this vote drove a stake through its heart,” he said. “After Pete Wilson’s experience here, I can’t imagine there is another politician in the country who would want to step out in front on this issue. And I don’t think there are going to be many more fund-raisers who are going to be willing to throw money down this rat hole.”
Union participation in politics has been on the upswing in recent years. In 1996, a huge push by organized labor helped Democrats nearly recapture the House of Representatives.
“I think this really shows a continued resurgence of the labor community,” said John Perez, executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Western branch. “It absolutely emboldened us, and it absolutely backfired on the Republicans.”
Art Pulaski, California Labor Federation executive secretary, said the labor movement “emerged from this campaign much stronger than we began. From this, we will continue to build the momentum of all of these workers in fighting for decent wages, winning back daily overtime, and working for better health care.”
“With this new army we’re going to move to November and beyond. We’ll support candidates who support working family issues.”
But several political consultants said they doubted that enthusiasm would last, predicting that unions would play the same role in November as they traditionally do.
“226 will be a long-forgotten memory by the end of this month,” said Ken Khachigian, a GOP consultant. “The teachers and other unions will be involved in November, but it will be the usual suspects. I don’t see that this has really motivated anything different.”
Wilson Called Hero of ‘This Dunkirk’
Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren, played down the possibility that unions will enjoy any more of a role in November than they normally do. Proposition 226 drew a historic response, he said, because unions were faced with a do-or-die situation.
“It was self-preservation,” Stutzman said. “You put the gun to someone’s head, they’ll turn out. November will be a completely different dynamic.”
As for Wilson, Democratic predictions of his presidential prospects’ demise because of the measure’s defeat may be unfounded.
Republicans say that all the Proposition 226 debacle may do is strengthen Wilson’s ratings with conservatives, who can appreciate his efforts to fight for the cause. “If anybody is a hero of this Dunkirk, it’s Wilson,” said GOP consultant Murphy.
Yet if Wilson’s presidential ambitions were not damaged by Proposition 226’s defeat, part of the reason is that they were not too great to begin with, he added. “I think his chances make such a small target that they are hard to hit in an hurry,” Murphy said.
Times staff writer Davan Maharaj contributed to this story.