Clinton fixation puts AFSCME members in hock

The independent political arm of the nation's largest government workers union has taken out a $1 million loan to replenish its coffers after spending millions of dollars backing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and criticizing her rival, Sen. Barack Obama, according to campaign records. Despite the union's endorsement of Mrs. Clinton, state chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Illinois and Oregon have broken with the national leadership in recent months and thrown their support behind Mr. Obama.

Filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) show that the union's political group, AFSCME People, took out a $1 million loan on Feb. 25 from Amalgamated Bank in New York while spending more than $2 million to sway the Democratic contest. The expenditures included more than $200,000 in negative mailers against Mr. Obama in New Hampshire, Iowa and Ohio.

Several AFSCME vice presidents worry that the move could hurt the union if Mr. Obama secures the Democratic nomination.

Officials from AFSCME's independent political committee did not return numerous phone messages.

Gerald McEntee, AFSCME president and a prominent backer of former President Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, yesterday stood by the decision to back the senator from New York, saying "she can rebuild the country, strengthen the middle class and bring back good jobs."

"When we endorse a candidate, we back it up with everything we've got," he said. "That's what we've been doing. And that's exactly what we're going to do for the November election."

But Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, has said the national union ignored requests from his state chapter to refrain from campaigning for Mrs. Clinton in Oregon, which holds its primary today.

"President McEntee has ignored our requests and sent a mail piece on behalf of Sen. Clinton, phoned our members, moved staff to Oregon to assist the Clinton campaign and now is sending off another mailer," Mr. Allen wrote in a May 7 letter to state union members, which is posted on the state chapter's Web site, www.oregonafscme.com.

"McEntee's actions are disrespectful to our Oregon leaders, members and a waste of money," he added. "Given the status of the race at this time his efforts are probably meaningless."

In a letter to Mr. Allen distributed to Oregon chapter members, Mr. McEntee said the national union's executive board voted 23-10 to back Mrs. Clinton and that officials "fully intend to educate our members about why Senator Clinton earned our endorsement."

"To do otherwise would be irresponsible of the International Union and unfair to AFSCME's Oregon members," Mr. McEntee wrote.

Because of the drawn-out nomination fight between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, AFSCME and other union political action groups are spending more during this campaign season compared with previous presidential races, according to FEC filings.

In contrast to AFSCME, the political arm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), known as the Committee on Political Education (COPE), has backed Mr. Obama, spending more than $10 million on the presidential race, including $1.5 million attacking presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, according to the FEC.

SEIU-COPE reported spending less than $1 million through the first three months of 2004 heading into the general election between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

AFSCME People and SEIU-COPE are two of the largest independent political action committees that have doled out money in the presidential race. Independent PACs can advocate for or against candidates, but they cannot consult with the campaigns.

"We do have more resources than we have had in any previous election to get our message out," said SEIU-COPE spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller, adding that the prolonged nomination fight probably has helped rather than hurt the group's fundraising.

"We don't think it's had a negative impact," she said. "If anything, it's helped us lay the groundwork for what we're going to be doing in the general election with much more intensity."

Overall, the records show, unions and other independent political action committees have poured more than $24.9 million into the presidential race. Mr. Obama has criticized the flow of outside money from independent PACs.

According to the FEC, outside groups — led by the SEIU — have spent more than $11.5 million on Mr. Obama's behalf. By contrast, independent political committees have spent $5.5 million to help elect Mrs. Clinton and less than $25,000 on behalf of Mr. McCain.

Mrs. Clinton also has won the backing of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), but Mr. Obama has been picking up more union support, including the endorsement of the United Steelworkers this week. It remains to be seen whether the sharp divisions among some labor unions such as AFSCME and SEIU during the nomination fight will heal in the general election.

"To some extent, it's the same question that surrounded the whole Democratic nomination: Is the party going to come around to Obama?" said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "I think the unions will coalesce around the nominee, and it's going to be pretty clear that Democratic nominee will have views more in concert with the view of the Republicans.

"The Obama campaign is going to welcome supporters whenever they get on board," he said. "Certainly, the individuals and organizations that were on board before Iowa will probably have some aura that those who joined the campaign aren't going to have."


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