Monday, Oct. 30, 2006 | Opponents of the mayor’s so-called reform initiative that will appear on the ballot as Proposition C always had several rhetorical platforms from which they could have launched a major campaign.

Proposition C has natural enemies – the labor unions that represent city employees. If you’re lost in the proposition soup right now and can’t quite remember what C stands for, it’s simple enough. This is the mayor’s initiative that will allow private companies to start putting in bids to do some of the work city employees do now.

The most obvious of reasons that labor unions would oppose Proposition C is their desire to protect the jobs of the people they represent who work for City Hall.

But the unions know they needed more of an argument against Proposition C than just “protect union jobs.”

They briefly toyed with the idea of trumpeting one specific point about the measure: that it supposedly put down a welcome mat for corruption on the front porch of City Hall.

Here’s how that one goes: If Proposition C passed, businesses, by being friendly to the mayor and other city leaders, could influence the decisions about who wins the bids. Perhaps, for example, a campaign contributor could help so-and-so get elected and so-and-so would then help their campaign contributor get one of these new contracts.

I know, that sounds preposterous. What kind of sordid world did those conspiracy theorists live in that made them so cynical? A government allowing any kind of pay-to-play system to develop – impossible!

There were more arguments to choose from in addition to that.

But last week unions settled on the one that may give them the most success, even though it’s probably the one that least reflects their real concerns about the measure. It’s the “your-house-is-going-to-burn-down” case.

A campaign committee formed at the beginning of the week called Police and Firefighters Against Proposition C. And although it has so far collected a lot of money, it appears it hasn’t collected any from police officers and firefighters.

Over the past few days, the national American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, has given $99,000 to Police and Firefighters Against Proposition C. The American Federation of Teachers has given $30,000 and the San Diego – Imperial Counties Labor Council – the local arm of the AFL-CIO – has donated nearly $33,000.

All of this giving can be easily followed on the California secretary of state’s remarkable website.

And all of the money will be going to support commercials like this one:

“There’s a proposition on the ballot that’s bad for your family’s safety,” says firefighter John Thomson in the advertisement that is filled with images of fires.

That’s right, the message is simple: “Vote for Proposition C and there’s a good chance your house will burn down.”

Jennifer Tierney, the political consultant who has worked with the city of San Diego’s firefighters for years, said that the city’s unions had basically decided to sit on the sidelines until they saw what they thought was a vulnerability in Proposition C: The apparently successful argument that the work of police officers and firefighters could be parsed out to the private company with the lowest bid.

She said that when supporters of Proposition C filed a lawsuit to stop that argument, their rivals realized they had struck a nerve – and that they could perhaps kill this thing if they spent some money exploiting the fear that public safety could be harmed.

But is a concern for public safety really why AFSCME has decided to pay $99,000 to support this ad?

No. The union may be legitimately worried about public safety. But to come to the conclusion that this measure really endangers the public requires several very difficult logical leaps. Although it can reasonably be argued that some public safety jobs could be outsourced under Proposition C, it’s not a given. And even if it is, it’s certainly not a given that your house will burn down if some part of public safety services are outsourced.

No, the motivation is different. AFSCME, in San Diego, represents the blue collar workers of the city. They are hard workers who do critical jobs keeping this city clean and well-maintained. And their jobs may well be outsourced under the mayor’s plans.

But AFSCME represents government workers across the country and the union is trying as hard as any group to get the House and Senate into the hands of Democrats. The national union has a lot of places to send money. For it to choose, in the midst of all this politicking, to send nearly $100,000 to San Diego to fight Proposition C says something about how big of a deal this is to the union.

And when I talked to a national AFSCME representative earlier in the week, he had some passing words about the union wanting to support San Diego families who were worried about their safety. After a few questions, his real concern emerged.

“If San Diego successfully implements managed competition it revitalizes that concept for the country after it died 10 to 15 years ago. These concepts have all been flushed out and rejected in the past. We don’t want to see them reenergized,” said the national rep, Adam Acosta.

“Managed competition,” of course, is the term used to describe the system Proposition C hopes to implement in San Diego.

The union is, rightly, worried about its jobs. That, however, is not the argument they think the public will care tremendously about. The unions decided that their only chance to kill the measure would come from television advertisements that warned residents that their houses were going to burn down and some McDonald’s employee would be the only one summoned to rescue them.

I don’t know, maybe I’m an idealist. And we political idealists always wail and whine about the lack of sincerity and thoughtfulness in election discussions.

But there was a rational discussion to be had about Proposition C. Instead of hearing it though, we’re stuck with the “you-might-die” vs. “no-you-won’t” argument.

And we get enough of that on the national stage.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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