Stray Crats

On Dec. 6, 2001, under rhetorical pressure from Speaker Dennis Hastert ("Support our president, who is fighting a courageous war on terrorism.") and real pressure from the administration and corporate America, members of the House of Representatives passed a bill granting the president fast-track trade-promotion authority by a single vote: 215-to-214. The bill would not have passed without the unheralded defection of several centrist Democrats -- most prominently, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who just the previous November had ousted the Republican incumbent in her San Diego district by virtue of a massive mobilization from labor.

California unions, which had put hundreds of activists and hundreds of thousands of dollars into Davis' campaign, were understandably apoplectic. She had given them no sign that she was about to side against them on this crucial vote, says San Diego Central Labor Council Political Director Donald Cohen. To make matters worse, California's primary election was scheduled absurdly early, on March 5, 2002, and the filing deadline for candidates was Dec. 7 -- just one day after the fast-track vote. That left no time whatever for a challenger to plausibly enter the race, though for a few moments Cohen thought about taking out papers himself.

In fact, because of California's premature primary, the state AFL-CIO had already endorsed Davis for the March ballot. That endorsement was withdrawn forthwith, and no union money has gone to Davis since her vote. Because she represents a lopsidedly Democratic district, her victory this November is assured. In the 2004 primary, however, local unions will likely be searching for a serious challenger.

Unions' track record of mounting challenges to Democrats who've abandoned them on trade issues is anything but consistent, however. Their zeal in opposing free-trade Republicans -- such as North Carolina's Robin Hayes -- in trade-affected districts is, of course, unbounded. But when it comes to Democrats who are free traders, the question remains: How far are labor and the Democratic leadership willing to go to punish their defectors?

In two notable instances, labor can fairly claim to have ousted Democratic incumbents for their abandonment of Americans workers. The most recent example is the May 7 primary defeat of incumbent Rep. Thomas Sawyer (D-Ohio) in the Buckeye State's redrawn 17th District. Sawyer lost to 28-year-old Timothy Ryan, a protégé of the recently expelled and now imprisoned Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), after local unions backed the challenger. In the eyes of local unionists, Sawyer's July vote against fast track did not redeem him from his original sin: his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since that time, the district has seen thousands of jobs disappear. Steelworkers were especially angered by Sawyer's free-trade positions. "Clinton pushed NAFTA, but for Sawyer to push it ... was like a slap in the face," says Akron Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Jim Frost.

Sawyer's defeat is not the only example of labor mobilizing to defeat an incumbent who votes against labor interests. In 2000, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) successfully unseated nine-term incumbent Marty Martinez, who had supported the Clinton administration's bid for fast track in return for federal funding of a freeway extension in his heavily Latino district east of Los Angeles. (Remarkably, Martinez managed to estrange both labor and environmentalists in one and the same deal.) Solis' labor credentials were extraordinary (she had provided the seed money for the successful 1996 initiative campaign to raise California's minimum wage out of her own campaign war chest), and local unions enthusiastically supported her. That mattered because the political program of the L.A. County Federation of Labor is widely considered the best voter-mobilization operation in the nation.

Elsewhere in California, similar battles could be on the horizon. Labor leaders are just as displeased with the pro-fast-track votes of California Democratic Reps. Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher this July. (Both had opposed the measure the previous winter.) Like Davis, Harman had ousted a Republican incumbent in November 2000 with massive union support. Nationally, just five House Democrats switched their votes from no in December to yes in July, but they were enough to ensure fast track's passage. "In the final vote, [Tauscher and Harman] sold us out," says Teferi Gebre, the California AFL-CIO's southern political director.

California's early primaries have left unions without a hand to play in the current election cycle. For the moment, says Cohen, San Diego's unions are caught up in local elections -- which hardly precludes a later challenge to Davis, however. "We're not in the business of giving people permission to screw us," says Cohen. "In terms of payback for that one, we're looking at it." Gebre extends this thought to Harman and Tauscher, too. "Our strategy from now on is not to forget this. ... If they're not learning their lessons, we won't hesitate to do what we [did to Martinez]," he says.

Although unionized teachers and government employees who do not feel the impact of trade policy often happily vote for free-trade Democrats, among the industrial unions of the Rust Belt, these trade accords hit hard. According to United Steelworkers International Secretary-Treasurer James English, "We're looking for opportunities from time to time [to oust free-trade Democrats], and where we find them we'll take them." AFL-CIO trade lobbyist Scott Paul argues that one major free-trade vote has staying power. "The shelf life of trade is pretty long when you look at Tom Sawyer's race," he says.

But even Akron's Frost acknowledges that the formula that took down Sawyer does not always work. "We have to see who the Republican opponent is. You've got to be careful when you start carving people out," he says. You don't want to throw away a precious Democratic seat by ousting a strong incumbent in the primary.

So what to do with a free-trade Democrat who's with labor on most other issues?

Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's national deputy political director, acknowledges that "there has been some discussion among the political directors of the unions of running candidates who would stand with workers more often. [But] what do you do with a Democrat who has a 75 percent labor voting record" but defects on fast-track? The question goes to the heart of the labor and the Democratic leadership's current dilemma.

While Republicans often face heavy pressure, and sometimes dire consequences, when they stray from the party line on core issues, centrist Democrats who defect on trade issues rarely face such discipline. "One of the things you have on the Republican side is [Majority Whip Tom] DeLay, who is tough with a capital T," says political analyst Kevin Phillips. "The Democrats don't have anything to match that." With the exception of some labor-friendly Republicans elected in heavily Democratic districts, such as Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), defectors do not usually get a pass for the greater good of the gop; they get punished in primary races. "The religious right is a national force in the Republican primaries," says Michael Lind, author of Up from Conservatism. "In the Pacific Northwest, if you're in favor of abortion, the fundamentalists will show up and defeat you in the primaries, or at least do their best," he says. "[For the Democrats], there's no single national machine that can be used to punish those who deviate from the party line."

There's much that labor and the Democratic leadership could learn from Republican strategy. While DLC Democrats' votes often accurately reflect the views of the professionals in their districts (who are far removed from the impact of trade votes in the industrial sector), the fragmenting of the Democratic Party along the lines of trade may, in the end, prove a nightmare of its own. Several union leaders, and not just the Teamsters, have proclaimed a willingness to endorse Republicans if they provide better leadership on the issues dear to labor. The Teamsters are endorsing Republicans over pro-fast-track Democrats in Kentucky, Montana and retiring Rep. David Bonior's district in Michigan. (The international is supporting the Republican; the local in the district is supporting the Democrat.) The United Steelworkers have consistently supported a number of labor-friendly Republicans, and their political director, Chuck Rocha, told The Hill in May that "there have been as many Democrats who we have trouble with as Republicans on trade-policy issues. In some cases, we have started to target Democrats." In California, Gebre maintains, "We don't hesitate to endorse Republicans if they're better than Democrats." It just so happens that there are no such Republicans to choose from in California; there are virtually no pro-union Republicans in the Sun Belt. Nonetheless, Democrats would be well advised to close ranks on trade before their most reliable organized supporters jump ship. And labor leaders ought to think long and hard whether they're willing to sacrifice the prospect of an entirely new crew in November in order to punish a few mutineers.