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Saturday, June 25, 2005 | In a normal election cycle, Johnnie Perkins would be in campaign mode. He’d be fielding calls from mayoral candidates, conducting interviews and preparing questionnaires.
But this isn’t a normal election at a normal time in San Diego.
Life for Perkins, governmental relations director for the usually politically influential firefighters union, hasn’t changed much since Mayor Dick Murphy abruptly resigned in April. He hasn’t even gotten a call from any of the 11 candidates in the race that has spun the city’s political world into a frenzied whirl.
“I think that is extremely and highly unusual,” Perkins said. “I can’t recall a candidate ever not calling the firefighters for an endorsement consideration.”
The phones remain silent at municipal union headquarters, as does the power of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support and countless hours of organizational help that make a union’s blessing so famous.
This year, the unions are famous for other reasons. They bear the brunt of the public criticism for the multibillion pension deficit that has sullied the city’s reputation and threatened its long-term fiscal health.
Each major candidate advocates a solution that rests on one central theme: using the courts to substantially trim the retirement benefits at the heart of the pension deficit. Many also call for sending the unions back to the table to renegotiate the pension benefits that have been called illegal, sleazy and unconscionable on the campaign trail.
“I guess they figure that when they say that the unions aren’t doing enough and need to give back illegal benefits, they probably don’t think they’ll get an endorsement from any one of us,” said Joan Raymond of the Local 127 union, which represents blue-collar workers.
The feeling appears mutual. Three of the four main unions haven’t even mailed out the standard questionnaires to the candidates to gauge their stances on issues. Only the Police Officers Association plans to conduct candidate interviews.
“At this point, I don’t know who we can endorse,” said Judie Italiano, president of the Municipal Employees Association.
The pension deficit, which is reported to be at least $1.37 billion and is the center of numerous ongoing investigations, crowds conversation with every candidate in every debate. The burden of employee benefits on the pension system has doubled in the past six years, joining the city’s historical underfunding of the pension system as the key culprits in the pension deficit.
These days, the heated rhetoric of the campaign trail has turned unions into the bunions of the body politic.
It’s an intriguing twist in a once-conservative city that’s been slowly tilting to the left for years. With the demographic and ideological change has come the burgeoning union strength and influence common in big city politics.
The firefighters have been a formidable force in city politics for decades. Their support helped land a Democratic majority on the council and re-elect outgoing Mayor Dick Murphy in November. In the last election cycle, the firefighters union spent $140,000 supporting Murphy and Councilman Scott Peters. Both won in highly contested elections.
In the waning moments of the November mayoral race, the firefighters sponsored their first-ever negative mailer attacking Murphy opponent Ron Roberts, who lost in the tightest of three-way races.
MEA, known for its help with phone banks and precinct walking, also supported Murphy in November. Murphy’s last day as mayor will be on July 15; he stepped down under the weight of the mounting pension scandal and his contested November victory.
Municipal unions, and the membership manpower that comes with them, offer a valuable campaign aid in the form of money, call centers, mailers and doorbell-ringers.
Murphy’s former campaign chief, John Kern, said the firefighter endorsement is normally the most valuable in local elections, followed by that of the Police Officers Association.
But with the growing influence, and widening pension deficit, has come the burden of responsibility. The firefighter union president, Ron Saathoff, was charged last month with felony conflict-of-interest violations for 2002 votes he took as a pension trustee, as was John Torres, the MEA’s current pension board representative.
“We have not been sought out for an interview,” said Italiano, “which is no surprise with all the stigma attached to unions today.”
The candidates’ snub reflects the larger sense of discontent with the entire system that drew today’s languishing landscape: sitting politicians, union leaders and the downtown business establishment.
“The prior political paradigm doesn’t work in this election,” said attorney Pat Shea, whose campaign starts with declaring municipal bankruptcy and making the unions prove the benefits granted over the last decade are legal.
City Councilwoman Donna Frye has received the support of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the umbrella organization for unions in the region. However, the local municipal unions operate independently in races such as July 26’s mayoral election.
They, like the candidates, don’t seem willing to buddy up with anybody, at least for the primary.
“Usually we get a questionnaire, it’s the first thing we get (from unions),” said Scott Maloni, who is running the campaign of former police chief Jerry Sanders. “We haven’t heard about that from anybody.”
Sanders served as one of the rank-and-file officers for 20 years. He currently collects a pension check from the city, though his stance has left some of his good friends upset, he said.
“I can’t tell them everything’s going to be all right,” Sanders said, “when everything’s not going to be all right for the next couple of years.”
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at