Back in what is now considered the golden age of politics, Republicans and Democrats played ball — literally and figuratively — on Capitol Hill.
They socialized with each other, their kids went to the same schools. Spouses got along. The friendship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill was for real.
Although most union leaders were (still are Democrats), federal and postal unions often had what were known as “House Republicans.” This was often either a “fixer” with bipartisan ties and legislative skills, or a former member of the House or Senate. Sens. Frank Carlson (R-Kan.) and Hiram Fong (R-Hawaii) both worked as ambassador-lobbyists for federal unions. Both had served on the Senate Post Office-Civil Service Committee, so they were familiar with the members (and all-important staffers) and their phone calls were taken and returned. If they had a pro-union/worker pitch, they could make it to their former GOP colleagues. Some of the biggest gains — in pay and benefits — came during that time.
Federal and postal unions now regularly make political endorsements. But it has been decades since any union president — speaking undercover as a private citizen, not a union leader — endorsed a Republican presidential contender.
Tuesday’s column was about the pros and cons of union endorsements. Here’s the reaction from two readers, one a long-time, now retired fed who literally has been there, done that and gotten the T-shirt:
“Endorsing a candidate is like declaring your loyalty to a favored sports team. You put your hopes, dreams and dollars in support of the their cause. Remember the International Association of Federal Firefighters president (Harold Schaitberger) who endorsed John Kerry for President in 2004? He got to stand on stage with his yellow IAFF placard behind candidate Kerry at every important campaign event. It really raised Schaitberger’s profile, but Kerry lost and what did firefighters get?
“The better, smarter approach for the unions is to declare loyalty to no one but their members. And they should be smart like the NRLCA (Rural Letter Carriers) and NARFE (National Active & Retired Federal Employees). These organizations focus where it counts — in the Congress — and make a real effort to use their PACs to support candidates from both parties who can support the legislative efforts of rural carriers and retirees.
“When I first began working for the federal government in 1970, I was a young lefty getting ready to cast my first vote for George McGovern. But my little local union was trying to establish a relationship with our local Republican congressman, and our national union soon began to give him small campaign contributions. When we asked for his support, we were pleased to find that he was eager to help his constituents by supporting funding for our agency’s projects back home in the district. He came to know us, trust us and support us on other efforts as well. That’s the way representative government should work. And the union did its best to avoid the big partisan fights of the time because it knew that the politicians would try to find a way to use us to advance their goals. We weren’t there to serve them; they were there to serve us.
“I’ve retired now and I’m afraid that things have gotten reversed. The unions appear to want to pick one team (D) and become part of the constellation of groups that demonstrate loyalty to the party through endorsements. This might raise the profile of certain union leaders, and I guess it’s almost expected in our age of celebrity. But I can’t help but think that something very important is being lost.” — Name withheld by request
” These union leaders, especially of the federal variety, should study the Tip O’Neill rule: All politics is local. They should be backing the senator, representative or congressional candidate that is best for their members. Political party shouldn’t come into it. Otherwise, it’s strictly an ego trip.” — Iron John