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Do Washington State Democrats Have A Labor Problem? Let’s Ask Jay Inslee July 7, 2011

OK: so I’ve been working what is, on one level, a Jay Inslee story (Inslee is the Congressman from Washington’s 1st District, now running for Governor in ’12), and, on another level, a story of why Democrats are having all kinds of problems with what should be “natural” constituencies – and why those problems might not be going away anytime soon.

I thought the two elements of this narrative would come together last Monday, when I attended the “announcement event” that marked the beginning of the Inslee Gubernatorial Campaign, and in fact they did…but it wasn’t in a way I would have expected, and that’s why we have something to talk about today.

I reached out to some helpful outside voices, including Inslee himself; all of that will be brought to the discussion – and as another news organization famously offers to do, I’ll report, and leave you to decide.

Krusty the Klown: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Good evening. Tonight my guest is AFL/CIO chairman George Meany, who will be discussing collective bargaining agreements

George Meaney: It’s a pleasure to be here, Krusty

Krusty the Klown: Let me be blunt: is there a Labor crisis in America today?

George Meaney: Well that depends what you mean by crisis…

–From “The Simpsons” episode S06E01, Bart of Darkness

So here’s what I know: Jay Inslee brings to the contest for Governor a Congressional voting record that could be great news for Washington State’s Progressive community: he’s generally supportive of LBGT and other civil rights issues, he seems to support the sort of elections I like (clean ones), he’s very much interested in a “next generation” energy and environmental policy, and he voted against the TARP Program (that’s the bank bailout that was passed in the last months of the Bush Administration) and the extension of the Patriot Act.

All good stuff.

But I also know this: if you are a State worker in Washington State, you are under attack, and you have been for some time now – and among the attackers are members of the Democratic Party – and the reason I’m so personally familiar with this fact is because The Girlfriend is one of those workers (she’s a nurse working within the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and she has been for more than 15 years), and I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.

And I know that for these workers, each year the question becomes: “This year’s wage cuts: in cash, by jacking the cost of health care, or through furlough days?”

This sort of problem extends to workers all across the State, as business interests target the State’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Industrial Insurance programs for attack, to give just two examples of recent legislative battles.

And the State’s Unions are reacting: I had a back and forth with Kathy Cummings (she’s the Communications Director for WSLC, the Washington State Labor Council), who confirmed what I thought I’d been seeing: that since 2009 there has been an effort by the WSLC to bring the fight to Washington State Democrats, including a successful effort to unseat State Senator Jean Berkey, who was targeted, according to Cummings, because of her votes on UI, public education and health care, pollution laws, and tax policy, which the WSLC viewed as favoring corporate interests.

2009, by the way, was a watershed year for this State’s Labor unions, as that was the year Washington Democratic leaders actually called in the State Patrol to investigate whether internal discussions about whether to withhold future campaign contributions if those Democrats didn’t get more cooperative was some sort of criminal act.

As a result, the WSLC formed the DIME PAC (DIME, of course, is an acronym; Don’t Invest in More Excuses, to be specific); this and other Labor-associated PACs are apparently acting as any PAC can, much to the chagrin of Democrats and business interests alike, including what appears to have been a controversial decision to promote a Republican in Berkey’s primary in order to knock her out of the contest early. (Washington uses a “top-two” primary system to determine who gets to the general election, and Berkey came in number three.)

And sure enough, Democrats do appear to be less than supportive: Unions held two rallies this spring at the State Capitol in Olympia, both of which I attended – and I couldn’t help but notice that Washington State Democrats weren’t up on the dais talking about how much they supported those workers gathered just outside.

In fact, the only elected Democrat I saw on either stage, in March or April, speaking to the crowds was State Senator Spencer Coggs…who is a Wisconsin State Senator. (Kathy Cummings helpfully points out that, despite what I thought, about 20 Democrats were introduced by name and were somewhere around the stage at various times during the April event to show support – and you’ll want to keep that in mind as we go along.)

So here’s what I’m thinking as I’m on my way to attend Jay Inslee’s announcement and presser last Monday: Inslee is presumably aware of this history, and if he were to become Washington State’s top elected Democrat he would presumably want to act in a manner that heals that rift…which would be a pretty good story to report to a Progressive audience.

That is not how it turned out.

ME: “I attended two Labor rallies in Olympia over the past couple of months; the only Democratic elected official who seemed to be able to get out and speak to the crowd was from Wisconsin, Spencer Copps, State Senator [which was an error; I should have said Spencer Coggs]. I wondered what you think about that and what are you going to do to try to change it?”

INSLEE: “Well, I’m not sure what you’re referring to…”

ME: “Well, you mentioned honoring unions…”

INSLEE: “I’m sorry…”

ME: “Well, you mentioned honoring unions, these folks were out trying to promote union rights, but Democrats don’t seem to want to get out and support union rights in person. Do you see that as a problem; how would you like to change it?”

INSLEE: “I don’t see this as a problem, because I believe as I said I fundamentally believe in work, I fundamentally believe in workers, and I fundamentally believe that people have collective bargaining rights as an organized group, and I think what has gone on in Wisconsin is a travesty, and the reason it’s a travesty is that, uh, Governor Walker, if he wanted to be angry at someone, he shouldn’t have been angry at the first grade teachers, he should have been angry at the Wall Street investment bankers whose greed was responsible for the economic collapse, and yet I saw the Governor turn his sights on the middle class, and I don’t believe an assault on the middle class, which is what happened in Wisconsin, is productive for economic growth, of anyone in our State, or our country. Now I’ve been pretty forthright in that regard, and, uh, I’ll maintain that position.”

Here’s the video:

Now let me be the first to say that I did not ask the best possible question. What I should have done was be more specific about how much of a rift there is between Labor and Washington State’s Democrats, and then specifically asked what steps Inslee would take, to, as I said earlier, heal the rift.

So normally what you do in a case like that is you go back to the campaign staff and send a follow-up question, and some helpful person who is doing the Candidate’s communications work will get you an official response.

But that’s where it gets weird.

If you try to go to the campaign website to locate the contract information, it is literally nothing, except for three links: give me money, get on the mailing list, or click through to facebook.

I posted a note “on the wall” at facebook, asking who the contact person was for the campaign for media inquiries, and not only did that get no response, the request was removed from the wall within minutes.

I sent follow-up questions to the originating address of the email that invited me to the Inslee event in the first place and to his Congressional office; those also went unacknowledged.

And that, right there, is pretty much the entire story as I know it: there is a significant and growing rift between Labor and Washington State’s Democrats, I tried to bring Inslee out on the issue (albeit clumsily), which he did not seem to want to address – and, oddly enough, there appears to be no desire on the part of the campaign to take the opportunity to follow up and affirm that an Inslee Administration would be a friend of Labor when it comes to things like protecting UI, and not balancing the budget while exempting corporate interests from taxation, and protecting workers from environmental hazards on the job.

Except there is one more thing.

I asked the WSLC’s Cummings this question…

Since the 2010 election cycle, have Democrats become more reliable partners, in the estimation of the WSLC?

…and she gave me a bit of a “tease”: the WSLC will release their 2011 Legislative Report, which will address that very question, just in time for their Annual Convention, which begins on August 4th – and we are told to stay tuned.