- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

This election year may be remembered for the political breakup of the Democratic Party's long marriage to organized labor.
Labor unions are still overwhelmingly supporting Democratic candidates with money and manpower. But the Bush administration and Republican leaders have been making major inroads into labor's ranks on economic growth and jobs issues, winning endorsements in the process.
The most spectacular example of this emerging political change took place in New York this week when the 1.4 million-member Teamsters Union and its president, James P. Hoffa, endorsed Republican Gov. George Pataki for re-election.
Mr. Pataki, who now appears to be a shoo-in for a third term, has been aggressively courting labor and probably has more union endorsements than any other Republican gubernatorial candidate in the country.
He passed legislation last year, over the objections of some GOP leaders, to give state pay raises to hospital and building services workers, thereby winning the endorsement of their unions. He pushed for giving prevailing union wages to the construction industry, earning the enthusiastic support of the building trades unions.
But his most effective move came last December when, in a video hookup to the AFL-CIO convention, Mr. Pataki signed an executive order that makes it easier for labor officials to establish union representation at work sites. That order allows labor leaders to organize unions when a majority of workers sign membership cards, thus bypassing the election process that ex-ists in most other states.
"Heactually signed it on the video hookup and brought members to their feet. It was a very dramatic moment," said Mike Mathis, director of government affairs for the Teamsters Union.
This is the kind of payoff labor politics that Democrats have long used to win the money and votes of organized labor and, in most cases, the taxpayers will end up picking up the tab for Mr. Pataki's concessions. Now, Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo can only watch helplessly as Mr. Pataki picks up the union endorsements he had dreams of winning and that once automatically went to his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
The Bush administration has also been aggressively courting the Teamsters and many other unions who have helped the White House to lobby for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), worker pension reform, terrorism insurance to help boost the building industry and other measures that are in the works.
A key outreach initiative by Mr. Bush has been his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which mediates disputes between business and labor. "We're very happy with the way the NLRB is shaping up. It looks like a fair board," Mr. Mathis told me.
The White House fully expects the Teamsters and other unions to endorse other GOP candidates for governor and Congress. "The level of union support for Republicans in the House and Senate has jumped from 6 percent to nearly 20 percent and I think it will go even higher before the election season is over," a senior White House official told me.
The Teamsters have already endorsed Republican Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio and they very well may soon endorse the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "We had some very good conversations with Jeb Bush and his staff. We'll see how that plays out," Mr. Mathis said.
As many as a half-dozen other Republican gubernatorial endorsements are already in the works. The Teamsters are likely to endorse Sen. Frank Murkowski's bid in Alaska, and have given money and support to Acting Gov. Rick Perry in Texas. Other endorsements could follow in Illinois, Nebraska and Nevada, union officials say.
All of this "gives the Democrats a lot to worry about," said New York Rep. Peter King, a founder of the House GOP's Working Group on Labor.
"This is a reflection of a national policy set by Hoffa and the Teamsters to show that they are bipartisan and that they are not in the back pocket of the Democratic Party," he told me.
Mr. King remembers "when the House was voting on ANWR and I saw [White House adviser] Mary Matalin and [House Republican Whip] Tom DeLay escorting Hoffa around the Capitol. That's something I doubt you could have imagined a few years ago," he said.
"I think that all of this is a large step toward reconstituting the Reagan Democrats," he added.
So this is the divide-and-conquer strategy being driven by Mr. Bush and his White House high command: To form strategic alliances with key labor unions that will cut deeply into the finances and loyalties that have long been the source of the Democrats' political power. The 2002 midterm election is the first step toward that ambitious goal.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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