By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
It was a surprise for senate candidate Cheryl Kagan when she opened her mailbox just a few weeks before the June 24 primary and discovered mailers smearing her opponent — ones she hadn’t paid for.
These mailers, dedicated to knocking down Del. Luiz Simmons (D) whom Kagan defeated in Montgomery County’s District 17 primary, were funded by the Maryland branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It is a rapidly expanding and politically prominent labor union who endorsed Kagan and more than 80 others for state office. Most were incumbent Democrats, and most won.
These mailers and the union’s presence have permeated recent Maryland election cycles, and while the candidates who enjoy an SEIU endorsement consider it a boon for their campaigns, other contenders consider themselves targets, and have derided the SEIU’s tactics as purely nasty.
Representing workers in health care, local government
SEIU, across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, represents more than 2 million workers, who primarily are employed in health care, local government, and property servicing jobs — janitors, security officers, and maintenance workers.
The SEIU Maryland/DC State Council is divided into several local chapters, the more recognizable being the SEIU Local 500, quartered and founded in Montgomery County, and the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, who just negotiated higher wages for service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital after months of heated debate and a strike. 1199, one of the largest local chapters, represents not only Maryland and D.C. workers, but also those in New York, Florida and Massachusetts.
The Maryland/DC State Council collaborates with the chapters to determine endorsements — but Kagan said that it was the local 500 that “made her a top priority” for Montgomery County. SEIU volunteers organized a phone bank on her behalf and canvassed neighborhoods consistently.
“Their support was valuable,” she said.
SEIU silent on attack ads
Christopher Honey, spokesman for the SEIU 500, played up these grassroots initiatives, but said he could not address knowledgeably the mailers against Simmons, which came from, and was paid by, the SEIU Maryland/DC State Council American Dream Fund PAC.
He directed further questions to the SEIU Maryland/DC State Council and its Executive Director Terry Cavanagh, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Honey did stress that no candidate collaborated with SEIU on its mailers, which is illegal.
The most recent filing with the State Board of Election indicates the American Dream Fund PAC spent almost $39,000 on “mailing services” between May 22 and June 8 alone and contains more than $219,000.
At least two of the Simmons mailers slam him for “failing to stand up for domestic violence victims” — an issue seemingly outside the purview of a labor union, though Honey said the scope of issues SEIU is concerned with is wide. Simmons’ campaign manager and spokesman Andrew Feldman declined to comment.
SEIU mailed out in Brochin Baltimore County race
Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, criticized the SEIU for sending mailers out highlighting issues he said did not directly relate to the union’s cause. Brochin was also singled out by SEIU mailers, as the union had endorsed his losing opponent in the primary, Connie DeJuliis. DeJuliis’ husband, J. Ronald DeJuliis, serves as the state commissioner of labor and industry.
Brochin accused the SEIU of relying on big money from the national war chest — he said his mailers were paid for by a SEIU New York-based PAC. Brochin did not supply copies of the mailers to MarylandReporter.com.
“The pieces had nothing to do with labor,” he said. “They were attack pieces dealing with guns.”
Niemann turned down SEIU support, objecting to mailings
A harsh critic of the SEIU both in this year’s election and in 2010 was Del. Doyle Niemann D-Prince George’s County, who publicly condemned SEIU for attack mailers on the then senator of District 47, Democrat David Harrington. SEIU endorsed Sen. Victor Ramirez, then a member of the House of Delegates, who won the seat from Harrington.
“Day after day, we have been barraged by an endless collection of slick, professionally produced mailings sent by SEIU — using lies, half-truths and inflammatory language and manipulated photos to personally attack the character of Sen. Harrington” Neimann wrote in a widely circulated email back in 2010.
Niemann had amusingly enough been endorsed by SEIU — Niemann referred to the union a “bunch of New York labor thugs” — but said he would reject their support and returned a $1,000 donation.
This election, SEIU came after Niemann. He ran for a spot on the Prince George’s County Council in the councilmanic District 2, but SEIU endorsed his opponent, Deni Taveras. They sent a mailer promoting her, and one dirtying Niemann.
“Doyle Niemann just doesn’t get it,” the mailer reads. “He weakened our public schools by shifting the cost from the state to the local community.”
Niemann sent out another email punishing SEIU and its “dirty tricks” but the damage was done. He lost in the primary by an incredible six votes — 2,423 for Taveras to Niemann’s 2,417, despite other endorsements from NARAL, the Washington Post and local community groups.
Niemann, 67, touts a pro-labor resume including a stint as a communications director of ULLICO Inc, a union-owned labor life insurance company.
“The labor movement is about educating and involvement and raising the level of political awareness,” Niemann said in an interview. “Not lowering it. And SEIU is creating lies, false impressions and illusions, but their attitude is the end justifies the means.”
Muse, Gisriel also targeted
Other candidates who SEIU targeted in the primary included Sen. Anthony Muse in Prince George County District 36 who still got 51% of the vote in a four way race in which he was challenged by union-backed Del. Veronica Turner. The League of Conservation Voters had also targeted Muse.
In District 12, the Baltimore and Howard County district in which there were 10 Democrats running for three open delegate seats, SEIU sent out two negative mailers against former Del. Michael Gisriel, who had raised the most money in the race. “Mike Gisriel, disbarred lawyer and corporate lobbyist, Can’t Be Trusted,” screamed one of the pieces.
All three Democrats backed by SEIU won that race. Gisriel came in eighth.
Slanting an election
SEIU and similar big interest groups can slant an election, particularly during times of low voter turnout, like the recent primary, said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College. Roughly 22% of Marylanders voted in this year’s primary.
Eberly pointed to the gubernatorial race, during which union interest groups, including SEIU, backed Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for the nomination. They were part of the advantage that Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur couldn’t overtake.
“What these organizations have is warm bodies,” Eberly said. “Especially labor unions more than other interest groups, they have people who vote themselves and pick up others and take them to the polls.”
The chunk of voters who steer away from political news on all media could also be taken by mailers, which are delivered directly to them, Eberly said.
“It’s a judgment call — some folks would say — that it’s a problem that big money is impacting elections,” he said. “But on the flip side, you have to consider that in many respects, spending money is akin to free speech … who who sets that standard? That’s why these groups exist, because an individual doesn’t make as much of an impact, but they could if they band together.”