Bob Baker is a union president and a Los Angeles police officer who considers himself generally conservative.
“Don’t ever call a cop a liberal,” said Baker, head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
He even blanches at the word “union,” saying it reminds him of corrupt Teamster bosses. Baker, who often works in concert with liberal labor leaders, prefers “recognized bargaining unit.”
So it goes with police unions, a hybrid of law-and-order conservatism and bread-and-butter liberalism. They may tilt Republican in party loyalty, but their labor representatives frequently turn to Democrats on matters such as pay and pensions.
That paradox is on stark display in the battle over Proposition 75, a November ballot measure that would require public employee unions to get members’ written permission to spend their dues on political campaigns.
California police unions are mobilizing against the proposition and its largely conservative backers. They contend Proposition 75 is designed to make it hopelessly cumbersome for them to raise election funds.
“It’s extremely unfair,” said Baker, whose league represents 9,200 Los Angeles Police Department officers.
Proposition 75 supporters say the initiative is all about fairness, because the unions finance candidates and causes that many of their members might not favor -- namely, Democratic ones.
“They’re not always in agreement on where the money should go,” said Allan Mansoor, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy who is mayor of Costa Mesa. The Republican is among the relatively small number of peace officers who are vocally promoting Proposition 75.
Both Mansoor and the president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs said that its about 1,700 members are predominantly Republican. Even so, the union endorsed then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, for reelection in 2002.
The association is now fighting Proposition 75.
The initiative has deepened the rift between public employee unions and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who backs the measure.
Schwarzenegger riled labor by trying to shift government pensions to private accounts. He abandoned that idea earlier this year after the unions pummeled him with a campaign of media ads and street rallies, which saw police officers close ranks with firefighters, nurses and teachers.
The unions describe Proposition 75 as an attempt to weaken their ability to fend off future runs at their retirement packages. If it passes and succeeds in shrinking labor campaign treasuries, they say, the initiative would give anti-union corporate interests a ballot-season spending advantage.
Among the initiative’s proponents are a business coalition aligned with Schwarzenegger, tax-cut crusaders and the state Republican Party, which complains unions contribute disproportionately to Democrats.
The GOP’s stance enrages badge-wearing Republicans like Wayne Quint Jr., a sheriff’s sergeant and president of the Orange County deputies association.
“I’m just ashamed of my party for taking an official ‘yes’ on this,” Quint said.
A statewide alliance of unions is spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 75. One alliance television ad features three steely-eyed law officers criticizing Schwarzenegger, although it doesn’t specifically mention the initiative.
Cops in campaign spots can be a potent weapon against conservatives, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant in Los Angeles.
“How can we attack the union without attacking the profession?” Hoffenblum said.
Most California police officers are covered by union contracts, reflecting a trend of public-sector labor organizations growing steadily in membership and political influence.
Under current law, a government employee can sign a one-time form directing that a union not spend his or her dues on political activity, something that stays in effect until the worker rescinds it. Typically, that portion of the dues ranges from a couple of dollars to $20 a month.
Proposition 75 would reverse the process, requiring unions to obtain authorization from each member each year to use his or her dues on politics. “An absolutely overwhelming task,” Baker said.
He and other leaders of several large police unions said that only a tiny fraction of their members withhold dues. And, they said, their endorsements sit well with the majority of employees.
“We’ve never had huge dissent about any of our endorsements,” said Deputy Steve Remige, vice president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which opposes Proposition 75.
The association backed Schwarzenegger in the recall election, but its relationship with him has become strained.
Remige said 20 or so of the association’s 7,000 members have asked that their dues not be spent on campaigns.
Lew Uhler, an anti-tax advocate who led the effort to place Proposition 75 on the ballot, said many police officers were fearful of withholding their dues.
“It takes a pretty strong person, we’ve found, to buck the orthodoxy of the union,” Uhler said.
Union chiefs scoff at that. “Cops are afraid to dissent? Come on,” said Ron Cottingham, a San Diego County sheriff’s lieutenant and president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, a union lobbying organization.
When dissent does surface, it isn’t always from the right.
Los Angeles Police Sgt. Ron Cato, a Democrat who is president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, a group of about 600 black officers, said he would vote for Proposition 75 because he believes that the protective league does a poor job of representing African Americans on the force.
The union’s board includes no blacks, Cato said, and it has defended white officers accused of abusing black residents “even if the officers are wrong.”
Police unions are a principal source of legal representation for officers who are charged with misconduct.
Cato said that he stopped paying dues about 10 years ago, but nearly all African American officers continue to give the union their money -- a point stressed by a league spokeswoman who was asked to respond to Cato’s complaints.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Sgt. Lon Jacobs, another Democrat, said he was stumping for Proposition 75 because his union had tried to “silence” him. He said the county Safety Employees Benefit Assn. terminated his membership after he launched a website critical of the union’s leaders.
“I think it’s going to knock the socks off the public employee unions,” Jacobs said of Proposition 75.
William Abernathie, president of the San Bernardino association, declined to discuss Cato’s dispute with the union.
A sheriff’s sergeant, Abernathie said he was a Republican who learned to embrace Democrats when the stakes were more tax dollars for police salaries, healthcare and retirement. But working with liberal union activists on behalf of his mostly Republican membership took some getting used to.
“It’s business,” Abernathie said. “We endorse a Democrat because Democrats are more pro-employees and Republicans are more pro-business.”
“Somebody has described us as Republicans with Democratic needs,” Cottingham said.
He said the Peace Officers Research Assn. has given money to numerous Republicans over the years, and endorsed Davis’ two GOP predecessors. But it also was a Davis ally and opposed his recall.
Democrats in the mold of Davis, said Cottingham and other union representatives, have moved closer to Republicans on law-and-order issues. Davis supported the death penalty and routinely refused to parole convicted killers in non-capital cases.
“We realize that no matter who we endorse, some of our members will not support that endorsement,” said Long Beach Police Officers Assn. President Steve James, a Republican.
His association also backed Davis, while endorsing President Bush. It opposes Proposition 75.
“One of the most disheartening things for me,” James said, “is the treatment of law enforcement personnel by the Republican Party.”
And he doesn’t mind calling his association what it is: “I don’t think ‘union’ is a bad word.”