Maine card-check ad draws voters' attention

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The ads started appearing on television in Maine last month.

One showed a tough-talking boy in a school classroom telling his classmates they’re not going to get to vote for class officers by secret ballot. Another showed blue-collar workers making seemingly sarcastic remarks about how much they enjoy belonging to a labor union.

"I think it’s great my union dues are going to politicians I don’t even like," said a smiling man driving a forklift.

"It’s super that I work harder, but get paid less, just because I don’t have seniority," said a woman wearing medical scrubs.

Unlike many ads focusing on issues that usually appear during fall election seasons, however, there were no tag lines at the end telling viewers to vote a certain way or urging them to tell their elected officials how they feel about a given topic. The ads, which since have stopped airing in Maine, simply stated that if viewers want to learn more, they should visit the Web site of the group behind the ads, the Washington D.C-based Center for Union Facts.

Union officials in Maine decried the ads, calling them "deceitful" and claiming they misrepresented union positions. Viewers who wondered why a general discussion about unions might all of a sudden merit a television advertising campaign in Maine were left scratching their heads.

But some possible clues about the reason for the television ads have since appeared in their wake.

Last week, a press release sent out by a group called the Employee Freedom Action Committee said that U.S. Rep. Tom Allen is trailing Susan Collins by 16 percentage points in his bid to win her U.S. Senate seat. The release also claimed that Allen’s chances of defeating Collins are hindered by his support of the "misleadingly named Employee Free Choice Act."

And then on Thursday, a full-page advertisement on the same issue appeared in Maine daily newspapers, including the Bangor Daily News. Unlike the television ads, it named Tom Allen directly and criticized his support for the federal bill. It instructs readers to "tell Tom Allen to support democracy" at the group’s Web site, EmployeeFreedom.org.

"For his own benefit Tom Allen should join the working Mainers that repudiate this deceptive legislation which is being pushed by the big labor funders of his campaign," EFAC Spokesman Tim Miller said in the groups’ press release, which he reiterated Thursday afternoon.

According to information provided on the Internet by EFAC and Center for Union Facts, the two groups are affiliated.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which has been approved in the U.S. House of Representatives but has yet to be passed in the Senate, would affect how workers vote on whether to join unions. Supporters of the act say allowing workers to join unions by publicly signing a card would help protect workers’ rights, while opponents say the bill would violate their right to vote by secret ballot.

James Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Wednesday that it seems likely that the television ads were meant to have an effect on the Senate race, though the people who made it may have hoped to influence the 1st District primary race, too. He said he was struck by the aggressive tone of the television ads.

"It was not a soft-sell advertisement," he said, speaking before the print ads appeared in the newspapers. "This could be softening people up for a second round."

According to Melcher, issue advertisements are used by advocacy groups that are interested in the outcome of political races but don’t want to face limits on how much money they can contribute to political causes. If the ads do not refer to political candidates or tell people how to vote, and if they are not coordinated with political election campaigns, he said, they do not count toward the federal limits that groups can spend on campaign contributions.

Melcher said it is likely the Center for Union Facts television ads ran in other states besides Maine. Because buying airtime in Maine is relatively cheap compared to television and radio ads in other states such as California and Massachusetts, he said, it makes financial sense for groups hoping to influence the political balance in the Senate to fund advertising campaigns here.

But there is a risk of a possible backlash from such ads, Melcher said, if they obviously come from out of state. The print ad in Thursday’s Bangor Daily News indicates it was paid for by a group calling itself "Mainers for Employee Freedom" and listed an in-state telephone number. A recording machine answered when a call was placed Thursday evening.

"Maine is a state where people get resentful when people from out of state try to tell them what to do," Melcher said.

Amy Fried, associate politcial science professor at UMaine, said this week that the television ads appeared to be aimed at the Senate race, but said the timing and topic of the ads were unusual.

Such issue advertisements usually address topics that are part of an ongoing public debate, not comparatively minor issues like union voting procedures, she said. They also tend to hit the media closer to a general election, not in May or June.

Fried said she could guess what the Democrat and Republican positions on the proposed bill might be, but that she was unaware of Allen’s and Collins’ specific feelings about it.

"I think for Maine it is [obscure]," Fried said. "Normally you would see it connected to an ongoing debate."

It is possible that the ads were meant to prime voters on the issue of union practices in the event that it does become a hotly debated campaign issue, she said, but it’s hard to see it becoming a major talking point in the campaign, like the Iraq war or the economy.

"It’s difficult for voters to see that as the basis for making a decision," Fried said.

Mark Brewer of UMaine’s political science department said Wednesday that he had seen the television ads but was not sure what the intent of them was, though it is possible that the Senate race was the intended target.

Brewer said he was more certain about the future of issue advertising in Maine by out-of-state groups. Nationwide, partisanship is as high as it has been since the 19th century, he said, and is one reason such ads are becoming more common in Maine. But even if partisanship goes down, he doesn’t think issue advertising from out of state will decrease.

"I don’t think that will change," Brewer said.

UM-Farmington’s Melcher was more emphatic when asked about the likelihood of seeing more issue advertisements in Maine during this election cycle.

"Heck, yeah," he said. "We’re going to be seeing them throughout the year."

Carol Andrews, spokeswoman for Allen’s Senate campaign, said Tuesday that Allen is proud of his support for the Employee Free Choice Act. By allowing workers to join unions by signing cards, she said, the bill would help counteract efforts by corporations to deny workers the right to organize. It would provide mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes and establish stronger penalties for violations of workers rights, Andrews said.

"Maine appreciates [Allen’s] leadership in standing up for working people," she said.

Andrews said the Center for Union Facts ads and the EFAC press release were clearly meant to cast Allen in a bad light. She said she is skeptical of the polling figures cited in the press release by EFAC.

"I don’t give any credence to poll numbers, especially to those released by a special-interest group with an agenda," Andrews said.

When asked about the television and newspaper ads, officials with Collins’ re-election campaign said the campaign had nothing to do with them.

But in a prepared statement from Felicia Knight, Collins’ deputy campaign manager, Knight said the senator does share some of the concerns expressed by groups opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act.

"Senator Collins believes that all workers are entitled to their long-standing right to a secret ballot," Knight indicated in the statement. "It is ironic that a public servant, elected by secret ballot, would vote to deny workers the same right."

The Web site for Employee Freedom Action Committee prominently displays a link to a blog called Labor Pains, which describes itself as a "joint blog for the Center for Union Facts and the Employee Freedom Action Committee." Besides highlighting Maine’s Senate race, Labor Pains also offers critical assessments of Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Mark Udall of Colorado, all of whom are Democrats running for the U.S. Senate.

A disclaimer posted at LaborPains.org says that opinions posted on the site belong to the byline authors and should not be attributed either to Center for Union Facts or to EFAC. A description of EFAC on its Web site says it is a "non-partisan, non-profit organization fighting for fair elections in the workplace."

The mailing address and fax number listed online for EFAC are the same as that of Berman and Company, a Washington-based public relations firm run by lobbyist Rick Berman. Berman is listed as the president and executive director of the Center for Union Facts in the group’s 2006 tax returns.

A statement on the Center for Union Facts’ Web site says that it is not part of any political effort.

"The Center for Union Facts doesn’t support candidates for office," the statement indicates. "We are about education."


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