EILEEN BRADY'S mayoral campaign trotted out a very interesting prize, last Thursday, January 19: an endorsement from Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—the first official union nod for any candidate in the race.
It is an attractive bauble, giving her something that neither ex-City Commissioner Charlie Hales nor State Representative Jefferson Smith can boast as the campaigns heat up: official support from organized labor and the Portland Business Alliance, which endorsed Brady last month.
But that coup was quickly eclipsed by even more dramatic labor news. Late Tuesday, January 24, heavyweight Local 189 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) finally voted to endorse the presumptive labor darling in this year's race: Smith.
And, in a decision that's less than surprising in the city commissioner races, the group also voted to back State Representative Mary Nolan, a union favorite, over incumbent Commissioner Amanda Fritz. (Steve Novick, who's essentially unopposed, also won a nod.)
AFSCME's pick is a glancing blow for Brady, but big news for Smith, who's been dogged by concerns he's "unelectable" and has had to play catch-up with campaign cash—a problem that will get worse once he takes time off for a special legislative session in Salem starting February 1. Local 189, with some 1,200 members in the metro area, offers an important source of donations and volunteers. And as AFSCME goes, so may another big player: Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
"We had no real problem with Eileen Brady. She's just untested," explains Rob Wheaton, an AFSCME field rep. "We have a record of support with Jefferson."
(Wheaton pointedly ignored Hales, who had a contentious relationship with city unions during his time on the council. "That's not change," Wheaton quipped about bringing Hales back.)
So why did IBEW go one way and AFSCME go another? It likely came down to another acronym: CRC—AKA the Columbia River Crossing.
Consider that IBEW hasn't been shy about declaring a new I-5 bridge the "number one" priority for its members. And Brady has been the least shy about declaring her enthusiasm for the increasingly troubled bridge project.
"We need to build that bridge, you guys," Brady said at a labor forum back in November, answering a CRC question posed by—wait for it—an IBEW rep.
The multibillion-dollar bridge plan remains mired in questions. No one really knows if the feds will cough up construction cash—or whether Olympia and Salem should keep spending millions planning something that may never get built.
(Interestingly, Brady's stance on the CRC seems to be a sensitive subject for some of her staffers, who ripped into critics on the Blue Oregon blog, accusing them of "grousing, half-truths, and nastiness.")
Brady's CRC rhetoric might help her with some other trade unions, but AFSCME and SEIU aren't looking at a bridge. They're looking at a city general fund hemorrhaging red ink and possibly dozens of union workers—this year, and next. And AFSCME, at least, has decided Smith is the one who'll help its members most.