Big union to endorse some GOP candidates
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — The state's largest labor union — and one of the Democratic Party's strongest allies — is planning to endorse more than two dozen Republicans in this year's legislative elections.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is even backing a few Republican incumbents in key races where the Democrats hope to mount serious challenges.
SEIU leaders say the reason is simple: Republican lawmakers voted heavily in favor of the union's top-priority bills during this year's legislative session.
"Our members do not care about Democrat vs. Republican," said David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775. He added, "It's not the union's role to be a subsidiary of either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party."
Republican leaders, who often curse the Democrats' close ties to labor, said they welcome the SEIU support.
"They're a hard-working group of folks and they carry that over to the election," said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "It's a big boost for our caucus."
Democrats, meanwhile, are downplaying the union's GOP endorsements.
"It's no big deal," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "All I know is that SEIU is going to help us a lot to not only keep the majority but expand it."
He pointed out that Democrats are getting the vast majority of endorsements from other labor groups.
The SEIU represents about 100,000 workers statewide, including home health-care workers, nurses, janitors and classified school employees.
As it has nationwide, the union in recent years has become a powerful force in Washington state politics. It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past few legislative elections and frequently deploys armies of campaign volunteers.
Nearly all of that support has gone to help Democrats win control of both the House and Senate. SEIU endorsements for Republicans were rare.
But this year, the union is planning to support as many as two-thirds of the 49 Republican incumbents up for re-election.
In past years, the union's priority bills received scant Republican support. But this year, five of the top SEIU-backed bills received little GOP opposition and passed by a combined vote total of 684-38.
For instance, numerous Republicans supported a bill granting collective-bargaining rights to some 10,000 child-care workers that the SEIU is hoping to unionize.
Likewise, a bill requiring hospitals to provide mechanical lifting devices for nurses who have to move heavy patients and another to increase state funding for nursing homes passed overwhelmingly.
"The story about this session was the Republicans turning around ... not just on one of our issues, but on a lot of issues," Rolf said.
Many of the Republicans the SEIU is supporting are in conservative districts that the Democrats have little hope of winning. But a few are in swing districts where the Democrats are making a big push.
For instance, the union is endorsing Republican Rep. Jan Shabro of Bonney Lake, even though she is being challenged by former Rep. Christopher Hurst, a Democrat who was a close friend of labor during his two terms in the House.
Chopp tried unsuccessfully to get the SEIU to switch its endorsement to Hurst.
SEIU support also could make a difference for several Republican senators who likely face competitive races, including Luke Esser of Bellevue, Dave Schmidt of Mill Creek and Brad Benson of Spokane.
Esser put out a press release this week touting his SEIU endorsement. It includes a quote from Rolf, who praises Esser as a lawmaker who "can always be counted on to stand up for the most vulnerable in our communities."
"I think it's something you're going to see more of," said DeBolt, who is also endorsed by the SEIU. He said unions have been "taken for granted by the Democratic Party for too long."
Other labor groups are planning to support some Republicans. In fact, the Washington State Labor Council so far has endorsed seven GOP incumbents — perhaps the most ever. But all of them are either moderates or longtime labor allies, such as Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
Labor Council President Rick Bender said he's not surprised by most of the SEIU's endorsements. But he thinks the union is making a mistake on several races, such as picking Shabro over Hurst.
"It will make it harder to get labor bills passed if we don't get a stronger majority," Bender said.
Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, agreed. Both speculated that, if Republicans had been in charge this year, few if any of the SEIU-backed bills would have even come up for a vote.
Rolf acknowledged that Democrats have been good to the union, but said party politics don't mean much to its members.
"I'd rather see a bigger pro-worker majority," Rolf said. "If that means more Democrats, great. If that means more Republicans who are good on our issues, that's great, too."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882
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