Some time very soon – we predict – a flyer will arrive on Alamedans’ doorsteps or in their mailboxes endorsing candidates for Council, Auditor, Treasurer, and School Board.
It will be printed on glossy paper. It will be well-designed and well-written. And it will appear to come, not from a political party or an interest group, but from a grassroots citizens’ organization called “Alamedans United.”
Don’t be fooled.
“Alamedans United” is no grassroots citizens’ organization. In fact, it is a committee, formed by two local unions and funded with money from out-of-town union political action committees, whose purpose is to elect labor-friendly candidates for Alameda municipal offices and the School Board.
The Merry-Go-Round knows this because we read the Form 410 filed by “Alamedans United” with the Secretary of State on August 15 and the Form 467s filed by the committee with the City Clerk on August 22 and 24. (Three cheers for the state campaign finance disclosure laws!)
Those official documents show that:
- “Alamedans United” is a committee “sponsored” by the Alameda firefighters’ union and Local 5 of the grocery workers’ union. (The FPPC regulations define “sponsor” as, among other things, anyone who “sets, alone or in combination with other organizations, the policies for soliciting contributions or making expenditures of committee funds.”)
- Its three principal officers are Byong (“Ben”) Kim, the political director of the firefighters’ union; Mike Henneberry, the political and communications director of the grocery workers’ local, and someone named Benjamin Villegas. (Incidentally, we’re delighted to see the ever-quotable Mr. Henneberry resume his political activity – even if it’s behind the scenes – after his unceremonious departure from the Planning Board a few months ago.)
- Within days after its formation, “Alamedans United” received $1,000 from the Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522 PAC; $2,000 from the San Francisco Fire Fighters PAC, and $4,000 from the Hayward Firefighters Political Union PAC. (Undoubtedly, there will be more to come, but the City Clerk’s online database only goes through Friday.)
The Form 410 also identifies the candidates “Alamedans United” has been formed to support: Malia Vella and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft for Council; Gray Harris and Matt Hettich for School Board; Mike McMahon for Auditor, and Jeff Bratzler for Treasurer. This collection of candidates is noteworthy for a number of reasons.
First, the slate for Council and the School Board reflects something of a new wrinkle in organized labor’s electoral strategy. The unions always have backed candidates who they believed would advance the labor agenda, but until now, they haven’t put up anyone for office who was actually on a union payroll. Ms. Vella, however, can walk the walk as well as talk the talk: her “day job” (as Councilman Jim Oddie likes to say) is staff attorney and “public policy coordinator” for Teamsters Local 856. Likewise, both Ms. Harris and Mr. Hettich are current union employees or officials: Ms. Harris, the former president of the Alameda teachers’ union, now works as an “education advocate” for the California Teachers Association; Mr. Hettich is an executive board member for Transit Workers Union Local 557 as well as the “California State Conference Chairperson” for the TWU.
There may be some who balk at the idea of a union official or employee voting on whether to hand out long-term contracts to another union. Indeed, when local labor organizations were pushing Ms. Harris’s appointment a year ago, Mr. Henneberry himself acknowledged that putting a teachers’ union employee on the School Board might be viewed as “putting chickens in charge of the chicken coup.” But it didn’t bother Mr. Henneberry: “I would contend that the problem with society today is that there aren’t enough chickens in charge of the chicken coup; there’s too many Colonel Sanders in charge of the chicken coups.” (We told you he was quotable.) “Alamedans United” apparently takes the same position.
The other candidate endorsed by “Alamedans United” for Council – incumbent Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft – is the type of office seeker more traditionally backed by organized labor. Not a union official or employee herself, she is a liberal Democrat who’s comfortable wearing the union label. The funny thing is, of the candidates running for Council besides Ms. Vella, there is one person who fits this description even better than Ms. Ashcraft – and she didn’t get the nod from “Alamedans United.”
We’re referring, of course, to former Councilwoman Lena Tam. First elected in 2006, Ms. Tam was a member of the IAFF Local 689 slate that secured a majority on Council in 2010 and immediately ousted the firefighters’ union’s nemesis, Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant. After being termed out, Ms. Tam ran, with union support – including five grand from the IAFF Local 689 PAC – for the BART Board of Directors in 2014. She lost that race and now wants to return to Council.
During her two terms as a Council member, Ms. Tam left no doubt about her fealty to the public safety unions. She supported the contracts that set the precedent for guaranteeing annual raises for firefighters and police officers. She voted to build, and to borrow money to pay for, the monumental emergency operations center and fire station now going up on the corner of Buena Vista and Grand. (BTW, Mr. Haun, when are those buildings going to be finished?) And, of course, she kept the firefighters’ union in the loop about subjects of mutual interest by blind-copying the union’s then-political director, now president, Jeff DelBono, on internal City emails.
Indeed, it was Capt. DelBono who perhaps best summarized Ms. Tam’s role when he stood beside her on the steps of City Hall as she announced that the Alameda County District Attorney had declined to investigate her for allegedly leaking confidential information. “It is no secret that Lena Tam is a friend of the Alameda firefighters,” Capt. DelBono said then. “She has supported our issues during her entire tenure on the City Council and continues to do so.”
So how come the firefighters’ union – and now “Alamedans United” – haven’t gotten behind Ms. Tam this time?
Maybe the unions just like Ms. Ashcraft better – even though, last September, she voted against spending a portion of the General Fund “surplus” to cover construction cost overruns on the new EOC and fire station. Maybe they want to make sure that Ms. Ashcraft is well-positioned to challenge Trish Spencer for Mayor in 2018 – even though, if Ms. Vella is truly modeling her political career on State Assemblyman Rob Bonta, she might be itching to run for higher office herself if she’s elected to, and spends two years on, Council.
Or maybe the unions, and the firefighters’ union in particular (and, even more particularly, in light of his romantic ties, Capt. DelBono), resented Ms. Tam’s failure to endorse Ms. Harris to fill the School Board seat that became vacant on the death of Niel Tam. The night of the Board vote, the politicians who’d gotten, or craved, union support came out in force to praise Ms. Harris. Former Mayor Marie Gilmore and Ms. Vella appeared in person; Assemblyman Bonta, Supervisor Wilma Chan, and Councilman Oddie sent letters. But Lena Tam was nowhere to be found.
And it didn’t help when Mr. Tam’s widow, Judy (same last name, no relation to Lena), backed an applicant other than Ms. Harris – Ann McKereghan – to take her husband’s place and “continue Niel’s legacy.”
Whatever the reason, the only reference to unions on Ms. Tam’s campaign literature this time around may turn out to be the bug at the bottom.
Finally, we come to the last two candidates on the “Alamedans United” slate: Mike McMahon for Auditor and Jeff Bratzler for Treasurer.
Mr. McMahon is a mainstay of the Alameda City Democratic Club and a former School Board member, and Mr. Bratzler is a retirement planner and first-time office seeker. But the individual credentials of the two men are probably not what got them a place on the “Alamedans United” list: it was their willingness to run against the two long-time incumbents, City Auditor Kevin Kearney and City Treasurer Kevin Kennedy, respectively.
To say that the unions are not fans of Messrs. Kearney and Kennedy is like saying that Donald Trump is not a fan of The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s true – but it greatly understates the depth of their animosity.
Besides staffing, the two issues the public safety unions care most about – and legitimately so; that’s why unions exist – are salary and benefits. And, over the years, the Treasurer and Auditor have warned, publicly and repeatedly, of the financial consequences to the City of raising salaries and maintaining current retiree-benefit levels for public safety employees. Indeed, at times they’ve gone so far as to urge Council to consider freezing or even cutting the cops’ and firefighters’ salaries or making their retirement benefits less generous. (Based on data published by Transparent California, the average pay package, including salary and benefits, for an Alameda fire captain in 2015 was $267,460.70; for a fire apparatus operator, it was $250,984.60, and for a firefighter it was $213,789.)
From an economic standpoint, the points made by Messrs. Kennedy and Kearney are unassailable. If the City’s operating expenses rise faster than its operating revenues – which they have been doing until very recently – the General Fund eventually is going to run out of money. That’s not fear-mongering; it’s just math. And if public safety costs represent 79 percent of those operating expenses – which they did in Fiscal Year 2014-15 – the most logical place to look for savings is the fire and police budgets. That’s not union-bashing; it’s just common sense.
Ever since they co-chaired the Fiscal Sustainability Committee appointed by Council in 2008, the Treasurer and Auditor also have been harping on what Mr. Kennedy calls the “elephant in the room”: the City’s unfunded liabilities for pensions ($125,009,137 for the public safety employee plan and $45,537,832 for the miscellaneous employee plan as of June 30, 2014) and retiree health benefits ($112,987,000 as of January 1, 2015). Former City Manager John Russo sought to address this issue by coming up with ways to “fund” – i.e., set aside money to pay for – these debts as they become due. Messrs. Kennedy and Kearney have recommended focusing on reducing the total amount of the liabilities – or at least slowing the rate of growth. This, too, makes eminent sense from an economic standpoint: the less the City owes, the less it will have to spend.
But the local labor organizations don’t see it that way. To them, the financial analyses presented by the Treasurer and Auditor are a sham intended to camouflage their real motive: taking hard-earned pay out of the pockets of dedicated public employee union members.
Don’t believe us? We’ll let our friend, Mr. Henneberry, have the floor.
Back in March 2011, after Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kearney warned Council about the risks of ignoring the “structural problems” in the General Fund budget, Mr. Henneberry penned an op-ed piece characterizing their remarks as the “coming out party” for the “Alameda Tea Party.” Their “theatrics,” he huffed, “are a smokescreen for reducing the wages and benefits of working people and silencing their voices at work, the same dynamic currently at play in Wisconsin.”
Time has not mellowed Mr. Henneberry – it’s only affected his beverage metaphor of choice. Last year, after Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kearney implored Council to take more time to study the financial impact of the latest round of public safety union contracts, Mr. Henneberry took up his pen (or was it his cudgel?) again. This time, it was the “Alameda Coffee Party” with whom the Treasurer and Auditor were affiliated. The rest of the charges were the same as before: Mr. Kennedy was a Republican; Mr. Kearney was a Libertarian, and both were “anti-working family.”
Given the views expressed by one of its “principal officers,” it’s small wonder that “Alamedans United” wants to end the public service careers of the incumbent Treasurer and Auditor, who took office in 2000 and 1991, respectively. We don’t know Mr. Bratzler, but we confess we’re a little disappointed that Mr. McMahon would lend his name to that endeavor.
The emergence of “Alamedans United” on the political scene suggests that the unions have turned over a new page in their playbook for preserving and expanding their influence over the City’s elected officials.
Both the firefighters’ union and the grocery workers’ local previously have backed candidates for both Council and the School Board. (For example, in 2014 the IAFF Local 689 PAC spent money on Mr. Oddie and Stewart Chen, D.C., for Council and Solana Henneberry – Mr. Henneberry’s wife – for School Board. So did the grocery workers’ local.) Now, for some reason, they have banded together under an innocuously named umbrella to do the same thing.
Likewise, PACs run by out-of-town firefighters’ unions previously have contributed to candidates running for office in Alameda. (For example, in 2014 Mr. Oddie took money from both the San Francisco and the Oakland firefighters’ unions). Now, for some reason, at least three of them have chosen to fund an organization devoted solely to getting labor-friendly candidates elected to local offices.
We don’t pretend to know what Capt. DelBono (through Mr. Kim) and Mr. Henneberry were thinking when they set up “Alamedans United.” We just hope that they don’t have in mind creating – to paraphrase Matt Taibi’s famous description of Goldman Sachs – “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of [Alamedans], relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like [power].”