Lawmakers Rake in $120k Since Voting Against Pension Reform
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Sixteen local lawmakers who voted against the state’s landmark pension reform bill have received more than $120,000 in campaign contributions from union political action committees (PACs) since last November, according to a GoLocalProv review of campaign finance reports.
The 17th nay vote, Senator John Tassoni, is not running for re-election.
State Rep. Roberto DaSilva, who is challenging Senate Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte in a Democratic primary this fall, is second on the list, with $11,750. Representative Scott Guthrie, a retired firefighter, has received $11,540.
“It’s not surprising that unions PACs are supporting legislators that opposed pension reform,” said Dr. Kay Israel, professor of political communication at Rhode Island College. “Given the climate that Wisconsin has exemplified, unions see themselves in a major battle to retain some control over their contractual benefits and to demonstrate their viability to present and potential members.”
Lawmakers in Re-Election Battles
Israel said union PAC donations are typically given to either ensure the victory of a known supporter or to defeat a vulnerable opponent. He called the $120,000 already contributed a figure that can be viewed as a goal line stand to “minimize the likelihood of less influence and maximize the voicing of their positions in the next legislature.”
In DaSilva’s case, the contributions are being used to pick off DaPonte, who was credited with leading the way to help get pension reform passed in the Senate last fall. DaSilva likely would have had a safe path to re-election in the House, but he had also fallen out of favor with Speaker Gordon Fox’s leadership team.
He’s not the only one.
Longtime State Rep. Rene Menard, who has received $8,750 from union PACs since last fall, is facing a challenge from Cumberland Council member Mia Ackerman, who has the support of House leadership and more than $28,000 in her campaign account.
Rep. Spencer Dickinson, who was unhappy with changes made during redistricting early this fall, has a primary opponent in Kathleen Fogarty and a credible Republican opponent in James Haldeman, who GOP chairman Mark Zaccaria has called “probably the top prospect among all challengers to pick up a House seat.” Dickinson has received $7,465 from union PACs since voting against pension reform last year.
While the money is important, Israel said the real strength of labor unions is their ability to get out the vote. With an election that may see a drop in turnout –particularly in the Democratic primary— a strong ground game could be the deciding factor in some races.
“One has to ask, why unions would opt to donate to those who opposed their position,” Israel said. “Shouldn’t those who advocated their support gain from it?”
EngageRI May Fight Back
But the unions aren’t the only ones expected to flex their muscles when it comes to political contributions this fall.
General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, the key architect to the pension reform bill and a likely candidate for Governor in 2014, has said she will support candidates who voted in favor of the law, although that hasn’t happened yet.
Raimondo raked in over $258,000 in the second quarter that ended on June 30, but only contributed $100 to one lawmaker – State Senator Hanna Gallo.
EngageRI, the pro-reform group that spent over $600,000 helping to get Raimondo’s bill passed last year, has a PAC that has contributed $13,000 to mostly House and Senate leadership as well as Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the House Republican Leadership PAC.
Rhode Island Statewide Coalition executive director Donna Perry, who also advocated for pension overhaul last fall, said the bill continues to be viewed by public employee union leadership as the “single greatest assault on their contracts regardless of the fact that it was a fiscally collapsing system and they seem intent on holding people accountable for the bill’s success.”
“If ever there was a vivid example of the direct connection between union financial muscle and a major legislative vote, it’s this,” Perry said. “When you are casting a vote that is so significantly against the best interests of the RI taxpayer and so clearly aimed at appeasing a powerful interest, and you end up in the distinct minority with that vote, I suppose it’s not a surprise that rewards are doled out after the fact.”
Bought and Paid For
Perry said it is not surprising to see union PACs contributing money to those who voted against the bill.
She said she expects even more money to be poured into targeted races, particularly against high-profile candidates who helped the pension bill earn passage.
But while the unions aren’t exclusively supporting candidates who voted against the reform bill (House Finance chairman Helio Melo, for example, has received support), Rhode Island Tea Party president Susan Wynne said she expects to see plenty of union money “spent on attack ads, fighting back to ensure their self-preservation” this election season.
“This issue evokes a strong suggestion that these votes were bought and paid for,” she said. “And it is widely known that for far too long they have had an upper hand in influencing how a legislator votes.”
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