April 23, 2018

Organized labor could hurt Dems this November

Greg Bordonaro Editor

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin's run for governor ended April 16 before it even really started.

The Democrat abruptly withdrew his name from the crowded race, even though he never formally declared his candidacy.

There are myriad reasons why Bronin's attempted run for the state's highest political office never gained steam. The fact that he has presided over a city that has flirted with bankruptcy for the last year-and-a-half was a factor, even though his administration didn't cause Hartford's financial problems.

The controversial bailout that followed, in which the state agreed to pay off Hartford's $550 million debt over two decades or more, was also a turnoff. It might have had less of an impact in the Democratic primary, but certainly in a general election, moderate-to-fiscally conservative suburban voters would have likely made their objections heard.

But the influence of organized labor was clearly a major factor in Bronin's lackluster run and it's something the Democratic party ought to worry about this upcoming November election.

Bronin, who has had to make tough budget decisions, has been forced to play hardball with the city's various labor unions, which pitted organized labor against him in some cases. He's renegotiated several union contracts that reaped much-needed savings for the city, including an estimated $10 million for the coming fiscal year.

The frayed relationship was on full display when Bronin didn't get invited to the Connecticut AFL-CIO political convention earlier this month. He pulled out of the race shortly thereafter. Conversely, Ned Lamont, who won that convention's straw vote, is now considered a leading Democratic candidate.

In most election years, having organized labor by your side in a dark-blue state would bolster your chances of winning statewide office, but I'm not sure that will be the case in 2018, particularly in the governor's race.

The state's endless fiscal crisis has undoubtedly created fatigue among the electorate. Even in a liberal state like Connecticut, a message of fiscal conservatism may ring louder than protecting the status quo for public-sector unions, whose costs make up a significant portion of the state budget.

Future billion-dollar budget deficits, higher property taxes, the threat of tolls, among other issues, are turn offs to many, particularly politically moderate voters, of which many exist in Connecticut.

And it's no secret that public-sector labor groups essentially serve as an arm of the Democratic party — some might even argue the Democrats, over the years, have served as an arm to the unions.

If Democrats back a gubernatorial candidate with unwavering support for organized labor they may pay for it at the polls. A fiscally responsible — not conservative — governor will need to put the needs of the entire population ahead of such a powerful interest group.

There is early evidence the GOP could have a leg up in this year's race, even though neither party has a standout candidate.

A recent online poll by the public affairs firm Tremont Public Advisors found Connecticut residents are more likely to support a Republican than a Democrat to replace Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The survey, which drew from more than 1,000 residents across the state over the age of 18, found almost 58 percent of Connecticut residents said they would elect a Republican vs. 39 percent who said they would vote for a Democrat.

This is not to say public-sector unions are the only cause of our fiscal crisis. They are not. Countless administrations and legislatures failed to save money to pay for future retiree pensions and benefits. The bill is finally coming due.

Ironically, even if a Republican wins, they may have little flexibility in finagling further savings from organized labor thanks to a bad concessions deal Malloy brokered last year, which yielded $1.6 billion in savings but also extended generous worker benefit contracts an extra five years, through 2027.

I know of at least one Democratic candidate for governor who said privately they wouldn't have made that deal.

Public-sector unions may have had some influence on Bronin's failed run. But they may also cost the Democratic party this November.

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