Unions re-inject partisanship into politics

At the UAW Local 95 Hall, yard signs for Janesville (WI) council candidate Kevin Bishop are stacked in the foyer. A sign for candidate Yuri Rashkin is anchored in the grass outside. Before the February primary, many Janesville residents were surprised to pick up the phone and hear an automated call from Rep. Mike Sheridan, a Democrat, endorsing Bishop. Sheridan also is the president of Local 95. Bishop is a former chair of the Democratic Party of Rock County.

By state statute, local offices such as city council and school board are non-partisan. Members of both parties, however, say they have distributed literature and worked the phones for candidates, although those activities were not sponsored by the parties.

Local observers say partisanship is increasing in non-partisan local elections and is especially evident this year.

Democrats point to the non-partisan county board, which voted in 2006 to eliminate the elected coroner’s position beginning in 2011. Even though county supervisors don’t run for office on a party ticket, Democrats say Republicans on the county board maneuvered to eliminate the elected position, which is occupied by a Democrat.

“If the board changes, (we have) great interest to revisit that,” said Tim Rutter, chair for the Democratic party of Rock County. He also is a trustee with Local 95.

Rutter encourages Democrats to run for local office and wrote in a recent party newsletter that the Democrats were looking for a “few good men and women for the Rock County Board of Supervisors, city council and school board.”

But partisanship at the local level doesn’t sit well with Ed James, a Janesville resident who recently wrote a letter to the editor decrying the trend.

Political parties can put more resources behind a candidate than an ordinary resident has available, he said.

But it is ordinary residents who have run Janesville so well in the past, he added.

James said local issues are not Democratic or Republican but citywide and should be addressed as such.

James believes city council candidate Kevin Bishop illustrates the increased political influence in local elections. He pointed to the many Democratic endorsements Bishop received even though Bishop has lived in Janesville less than two years. Bishop came in third of 11 candidates in the primary.

James said newspapers should note the affiliations of the people who write letters of endorsement so voters have the information they need to make qualified decisions.

When called by The Janesville Gazette to comment, Bishop instead wrote about his motivations in a letter to the editor that ran Saturday.

“I moved to Janesville in July 2006, fell in love with the city and chose last winter to try and make an impact by running for city council,” he wrote.

“The local Democratic Party has not endorsed me, rightly; this election is non-partisan.”

But he and his supporters share common values, he said.

“Some are Democrats; the rest, I have no idea.

“I’m a working guy. I go to work and get my hands dirty. It seems natural that other working people share some of my perspectives. I’m proud of my labor supporters, as I’m proud of my supporters who are lawyers, social workers, teachers, retirees, lawmakers, disabled people.

“No endorsement buys me a single vote. My hope is that an endorsement earns us a hard look ... ”

Dan Cunningham, vice president of government relations at Forward Janesville, a pro-business development group, said he has noticed labor’s activities in support of candidates.

“Whether those candidates are Democrat or Republican, I do not know,” he said.

Business interests can’t always be labeled Republic or Democratic, he added.

He hopes political affiliations won’t become part of a council’s or board’s makeup.

“We need to continue to elect candidates who clearly have the best interest of our communities at heart, not the interests of a political party,” he said.

That said, Cunningham said Forward Janesville is looking at how the labor community has been able to recruit people such as Mike Sheridan to take the next step in public service by getting elected to the Legislature. It is a model Forward Janesville might follow in finding business-friendly candidates, he said.

Jan Deters, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Rock County, said her party has “basically stayed out” of local races.

Individual party members help other Republicans by working phone banks, making donations from their own accounts or going door-to-door.

“We feel they are non-partisan positions and the Republicans should not be out there endorsing people,” Deters said.

“These people are running as managers for these positions, they’re not running as lawmakers.”

Rather than relying on the political parties, people should make their voting decisions at the local level by using the candidate’s credentials, she said.

Deters believes Democrats are getting more involved at the local level because “it’s a power thing.”

“They just want to have total control.”

But Rutter of the Democrats said awareness is increasing about the importance of getting more members involved in the political process.

He views local offices as a training ground for future party leaders.

But some of the views expressed on the opinion pages of the newspaper make it sound as if the “Democratic machine is rolling over the competition,” he said.

Rutter has knocked on doors for candidates, but he said he does that as a Democrat helping a Democrat.

Although the Democratic Party and labor are intertwined, Rutter distinguishes between the Democratic Party and the Rock County Labor Coalition, which is made up of numerous unions.

Not all union members are Democrats, he said.

But “obviously, the foundation of the Democratic party is the working men and women.”

In making endorsements, the labor coalition decides which candidates are friends of working people in Rock County, he said. Members then work to get that candidate elected by dropping literature or putting up signs, for instance.

“I don’t believe somebody cares whether you are a Democrat or a Republican when it comes to potholes in the street,” Rutter said.

But Rutter also believes some in the business community “aren’t interested in seeing labor or working men and women having a voice on the city council … Why should working men and women not have a voice?”

Labor unions have been losing membership and clout on a national level, and members feel politicians are losing interest in them, Rutter said.

“There’s been a growing interest in saying, ‘Our voice is not being heard’” he said.

“We really need to make a stand.”


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