2011-05-31 "Labor group reaches into GOP districts" by Steven Harmon from "Contra Costa Times" newspaper:
SACRAMENTO -- The last group you'd think would sway Republican voters is a public employee labor union.
But David Kieffer, the political director of the Service Employees International Union, thinks he has the tools and the approach to persuade GOP voters to support its highest political priority: extending the current level of sales, income and auto taxes to help close the state's $10 billion deficit.
It is a multimillion-dollar experiment for the SEIU, the largest public employee union in California, with 700,000 members. Kieffer has targeted 10 Republican legislators' districts with TV, radio and newspaper ads, fliers and billboards over the past two weeks. The TV and radio campaign has reached 2.6 million viewers and listeners in five markets: Sacramento, Fresno, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs.
The campaign has two purposes: to provide cover for some Republicans who are considering voting for taxes, or at least voting to put tax extensions on the ballot as legislators work toward the June 15 budget deadline; and to harangue other Republicans who may be vulnerable to accusations that they are blocking reasonable compromise solutions.
"Republicans who want to do the right thing will know they will have the political backing to do it," Kieffer said. "They don't have to worry about right-wing attacks in a primary. We'll have their backs if they stand up to an all-cuts budget."
A short-term objective is to help persuadefour Republicans to vote for tax extensions this year; a long-term goal is to elect moderate, pro-government Republicans in newly drawn districts in 2012 and beyond under the new top-two primary system, in which two members of the same party could face each other in a general election.
A draft of newly drawn legislative seats is expected to be published June 10.
Some are skeptical about the SEIU's ability to pressure incumbents to vote in favor of taxes this year.
"The threat from the SEIU is far less likely to result in Republicans going up on taxes this year than to result in putting Republicans in the Legislature next year who may vote for taxes," said Jon Fleischman, the state's most influential conservative blogger.
"But all Republicans should be concerned because I think it could be a very effective long-term strategy. They may find Republican candidates willing to raise taxes -- a former fireman or police officer who supports public pensions, and that would be unfortunate. To have a hostile force influence which Republicans get elected is not desirable but is a predictable outcome of Proposition 14."
Proposition 14, approved by voters last year, will allow the top two candidates in a race to face each other in the general election, regardless of party. That, combined with newly drawn district lines that are supposed to avoid gerrymandering practices that protected incumbents in the past, could result in voters electing more moderate candidates in some Republican districts because Democrats could cross party lines.
A key to his strategy, Kieffer said, is to change the terms of the debate, and present the choice as protecting services that Republicans care for, such as public safety, education and in-home care for the elderly, rather than whether they support tax extensions.
Republicans considering taxes, however, are worried that they will face the wrath of anti-tax groups and conservative talk show hosts. The fear of being targeted for recall efforts is also real, though no Republican who voted for taxes or to put them on the ballot in 2009 was ever recalled. Of the six who voted for taxes that year, only one was defeated in a GOP primary.
But Republican voters can be reached with another message that steers from the typical anti-tax rants, Kieffer said. His polling -- done purposely by Republican pollster Bob Moore to ensure as accurate a picture of GOP sentiment as possible -- showed that 80 percent of Republicans in the targeted districts do not want cuts in education, public safety, or even home care services for the elderly. Framed simply as a fight over tax extensions, and the support drops precipitously.
One feature to work with: The SEIU has a sizable number of Republicans among its ranks, 87,000 of its 466,000 registered voters.
"If we can figure out how to position this discussion so it's about stopping layoffs to cops and firefighters and saving in-home services for the elderly before Republicans take their vote," Kieffer said, "that would make it easier on them to defend their vote."
In one of his more Byzantine ventures, Kieffer targeted three GOP incumbents in the Modesto area: Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Stockton; Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto; and Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Stanislaus.
The Berryhill brothers have been involved in discussions on tax extensions with Gov. Jerry Brown, while Olsen has been a vocal opponent of taxes. Kieffer has sent fliers into Stanislaus County with an image of Olsen superimposed in front of what looks like a prisoner transport bus filled with convicts.
"Why won't Assemblymember Olsen stop police layoffs and protect public safety?" the flier asks. "She and a handful of legislators can help solve the state budget without making extreme cuts to public safety."
At the same time, the SEIU distributed fliers with a more encouraging tone for Tom Berryhill.
"We're counting on Tom Berryhill," the flier reads. "Sen. Tom Berryhill knows that divisive politics and partisan bickering won't fix our schools, keep our neighborhoods safe or balance the state budget. But some extremists have threatened to attack Sen. Berryhill with negative ads, demanding he support a drastic 'all-cuts' budget."
Kieffer has only addressed the issue generically in Bill Berryhill's district -- calculating that using his name would only rub him the wrong way. But the attacks on Olsen -- as well as the friendlier nudges to his brother -- could serve Bill Berryhill's interests, and make him more amenable to a vote for taxes, Kieffer said.
Under newly drawn districts and a top-two primary, Bill Berryhill and Olsen could face each other in a general election next year.
"So, when they get stuck in an election against each other, she starts in with her anti-tax mantra and people will go, 'Yeah, but she wanted to lay off cops and firefighters,' " Kieffer said. "We're just laying the groundwork."