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Mickey Kaus for Senate: a campaign taking on union power

In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, Andy Stern, the just-resigned president of the Service Employees International Union, described the labor movement as “the greatest middle-class, job-creating mechanism that we have ever had in America that doesn't cost tax payers a dime.”

Really? Aren’t unions the main defenders of the Davis-Bacon Act, a certifiable waster of tax dollars and destroyer of jobs? Unions share the blame for the downfall of General Motors and Chrysler, too, don’t they? Last I checked, their bailouts had cost taxpayers more than a dime.

I have also heard that the untouchable pensions and other benefits of public sector unions, including Stern’s SEIU, are pushing California into fiscal and economic disaster. I’m just back from Los Angeles, where the mayor, trying to close a $400 million-plus budget gap, has announced layoffs and service cuts, which can only be avoided if city employee unions accept wage cuts and contribute more to their own pensions. So far, the unions say no. Their counterproposal calls on the city to raise dog license fees and pass out more parking tickets, among other gimmicks and stopgaps.

Andy Stern’s self-serving observations to the contrary notwithstanding, public-sector unions have a death-grip on state and local government in California -- and elsewhere. And they have a death grip on state finances because they have a death grip on state politics. For all intents and purposes, California’s unions control the Democratic Party. Even with a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the governor’s mansion, unions have used their leverage over Democrats in the state legislature and in municipal governments to fend off real reform.

Stern and other labor leaders -- and the elected officials who symbiotically depend on their endorsements and campaign cash -- may not realize it, but union “capture” of state and local government is a huge latent issue in American politics that is slowly coming into the open.

It’s not just that the unions and their Democratic allies are courting a replay of the right-wing tax revolts that rocked California and other states in the 1970s, or more Republican victories like Gov. Chris Christie’s defeat of union darling Jon Corzine in New Jersey last year. Liberals and progressive voters themselves may eventually start asking why the educational, recreation, and transportation services they prize must be cut to save the pay and benefits of the people who operate those services -- pay and benefits that are often better than those available to the average non-public employee.

To be sure, my visit to California also confirmed that this day of reckoning has not yet dawned.

Monday night, as Stern’s frequent host at the White House, President Obama, was speaking to a fund-raiser for union-backed Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, I was having dinner at Toscana in Brentwood with Boxer’s Democratic primary opponent, blogger Mickey Kaus, who correctly thinks his party should not cede the issue of union power to Republicans.

This is the number-one issue in Kaus’s candidacy. But whereas Obama and Boxer mingled with hundreds of well-heeled donors, Mickey and I dined alone. Judging by the obliviousness of the other patrons to the would-be senator in their midst -- and the second-rate table to which the maitre d’ steered us -- name-recognition is still Mickey’s top challenge. Heck, even Mickey momentarily lost interest in his campaign when Bruce Willis and his new wife, ex-Victoria’s Secret model Emma Heming, entered the restaurant.

Mickey has been my friend for years, a conflict of interest that would normally preclude my writing about him. But, since he has a better chance of scaling Mt. Shasta in flip-flops than beating Boxer, I felt that I could waive recusal this one time.

For the record, even if he did have a chance, I’m not sure I would support Mickey 100 percent. His other campaign plank, hostility to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, kinda turns me off -- and then there’s this devastating opposition research report.

Still, his protest against union power in California is necessary and important -- perhaps a harbinger of more to come from better-financed, better-known politicians, in California and across the country. Even more than financial sustainability, Mickey’s candidacy is about political reform -- about breaking up the union-funded party establishment that is not only bankrupting the state but also stifling honest discussion of public issues.

Much funnier and far less self-important than Boxer -- who memorably scolded a military officer for calling her “ma’am” instead of “senator” -- Mickey regaled me with tales of his hapless efforts to generate “free media.” Hoping to make a scene for local TV, he tried passing out a “provocative” leaflet at the union-dominated Democratic state convention (which refused to let him address the delegates). But he was thwarted when most of them simply smiled politely and moved on. He thought of staging a confrontation with Boxer at her press conference, but he settled for a pleasant handshake with the incumbent when she was finished. At least his campaign now has its first “aide,” a twenty-something from South Carolina who reported for duty in Mickey’s garage on Tuesday.

In short, Kaus for Senate is a not-very-serious campaign with a serious message. It’ll be a success if that message at least gets the hearing it deserves. Speaking as a citizen of Maryland, I can assure Mickey that he’s got my vote. After all, when dinner was over, he picked up the check.

By Charles Lane  | April 21, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Finally a journalist who calls it what it is. Please continue to call a spade a spade. It will take many more journalist to make liberals in LA wake up. Look at our schools a disaster. Our Mayor has to get the DWP to raise rates to get a windfall of millions. A stupid fish has priorty and restricts farmers. Sacramento has tunnel vision and spent us into bankruptsy. Spends time promoting the legality of pot. High taxes-combined with excessive regulations and hostility toward wealth creators have driven businesses out of Calif. Jobless rate 15-20%. We should all grab our wallets and run.

Posted by: MOMLEE | April 21, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Unions are not Dictators who Manage Businesses, hire bad workers, fire workers, do not make bad Business Decisions, do not over extend finances to buy out a competitor and do not lay off workers so that a CEO can get a higher pay raise and bonuses. More Specially; they do Manage a Business into Receivership or bankruptcy. All of which is Counter productive. It's their jobs at stake because Workers, union & nonunion members, are the first to lose their jobs, pensions, and Health care when a company goes out of business or moves production to Mexico, India or China. They don't have Golden Parachute Contracts Company executives get richer on.

Posted by: ddoiron1 | April 22, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

There is a huge difference between REAL unions (like UAW) and gummint unions (like NEA) and out-and-out financial scams like SEIU.

Posted by: pmendez | April 22, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Huge Diff. between unions is BS, that's like being Half Pregnant.

Posted by: pfchenery | April 23, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

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