Democrats vie for union endorsements


Democratic candidates for statewide office vied for a key labor endorsement Saturday, trying to outdo one another in their criticism of state employee furloughs and other budget cuts that have affected union workers.

The candidates appeared at Service Employee International Union forums across the state that were linked into one video conference. The SEIU endorsement is an important marker for candidates, particularly those who are unknown outside their home bases and struggling to raise the money and manpower for statewide races.

With strict 1-minute time limits that cut off several candidates in mid-sentence, the forums offered more of a contrast in style than in policy.

The gatherings also marked the first matchup between Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who want to run for lieutenant governor in the fall. Newsom entered the contest a little more than a week ago . He abandoned his gubernatorial bid last fall.

Both candidates touched on their experiences on picket lines, but Hahn sought to frame herself as a more reliable friend of labor.

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are facing the prospect of thousands of layoffs to close half-billion-dollar budget gaps next year. In an attempt to spare San Francisco thousands of permanent job cuts, Newsom has advanced a plan to temporarily lay off 17,000 of the city’s 26,000 employees and rehire them with a 37.5-hour work week. The plan is on hold pending further union negotiations.

Hahn missed the City Council’s recent vote to authorize 4,000 layoffs, which was not expected to occur that day, because she was campaigning in Northern California.

On Saturday, she repeatedly said that she opposed L.A.’s layoff plan. She argued that the city should lay off contract workers before public employees, the vast majority of whom are represented by unions.

“I want you to know that I’m the candidate that will work with my labor unions when we work to balance our budget,” she said.

Newsom focused on his accomplishments as mayor -- noting that San Francisco, a city-county, has maintained the highest minimum wage of any big city in the nation and provided universal healthcare through a municipal program.

“I look forward as lieutenant governor to working in all the other 57 counties up and down this state, cities large and small, to deliver on the promise of universal healthcare regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.,” Newsom said.

Aiming his remarks to the many home health workers in the audience, Newsom argued that there would be no “stronger advocate” for protecting their programs, which have been targeted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration as an area of potential fraud.

“There is nothing more important to me than . . . to allow our seniors to age in dignity and be given the opportunity to age in place,” Newsom said.

Democrats vying to replace Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown also spoke at the forum. One of them, former Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, tried to win over workers by recounting his efforts to penalize car wash operators who were mistreating their employees and health insurance companies that had canceled the insurance policies of ailing Angelenos.

Although they offered few ideas for dealing with the state’s budget gap, many of the Democratic candidates for attorney general criticized Schwarzenegger’s decision to furlough tens of thousands of state workers. More than two dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of furloughs. The matter is expected to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

“We cannot put on the backs of hard-working people the deficit that has been created because of greed,” said candidate Kamala Harris, San Francisco’s district attorney. “We will fight like hell, we will build on the case that has just been established to say it is unconstitutional, it is wrong and cannot happen in this state.”

An SEIU spokeswoman said Republican candidates declined the organization’s invitation to participate.