With less than a week to go before Nov. 6, the spending by outside groups against five Republican candidates alone is already unprecedented in state history: nearly $800,000.
But the amount isn’t the most remarkable development in this year’s legislative races.
The eye-popping spending also mostly came from two independent expenditure groups with ties to unions, including the Arizona Education Association, and they have pummeled the Republicans with one overarching message — their votes reflect an “extremism” that is no different than what their Tea Party colleagues espouse.
The aggressiveness of the attack suggested that organized labor in Arizona and its allies adopted a specific strategy — to take out as many Republicans as they can, even those who are perceived to be somewhat sympathetic to unions.
But some Capitol observers, including lobbyists for public safety unions, said organized labor is taking a huge gamble and is courting a backlash, especially if they lose their bet.
The critics surmised that the attacks only serve to alienate potential allies, and if the unions succeed in defeating two Republicans in particular, they would only help Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, who is no fan of organized labor, to claim the Senate presidency.
That scenario bodes ill for unions, they said.
Indeed, the leader of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry quickly seized on the attack on Sen. John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who is battling Democrat Janie Hydrick, an educator, to say this is why automatic paycheck deductions for union dues should be prohibited.
But Democratic lawmakers and sources who are intimately familiar with the unions’ strategy said the unions are tired of playing nice, and that political subtlety hasn’t stopped an avalanche of anti-union measures in the past few years.
They said Republicans declared a war on organized labor, and that with their backs against the wall, the unions are forced to fight back. And this time, they’ve gone to battle with the best attack ads money can buy.
The avalanche of attacks started early in October in time for early balloting, and it has only intensified as Nov. 6 approaches. It came with such ferocity and frequency that it caught many by surprise. It even included TV commercials, which are rare for legislative races.
The attacks sought to paint the Republican candidates as politicians who readily took advantage of perks and freebies, supported an extreme agenda at the Capitol and had no qualms about slashing schools’ money and eliminating popular programs like all-day kindergarten.
McComish’s allies, in particular, called the attack “nasty” and foresee potential recriminations, especially if they are re-elected.
“I will tell you this. When I’m re-elected, the money that the teachers’ union spent will have absolutely no impact on how I vote regarding education policy,” McComish told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“(But) I didn’t say I’d welcome them into my office with hugs and kisses.”
The Republican added: “There’s not going to be much of a relationship there, and that will be too bad for them.”
Sen. Jerry Lewis, a Mesa Republican who last year defeated Russell Pearce, the Tea Party’s political figurehead in Arizona, also came under intense fire. He is squaring off this November against Democratic Rep. Ed Ableser of Tempe.
One mailer accused Lewis of having “led the charge to make the largest education cuts in the country.”
Like McComish, Lewis’ disappointment at the negative campaign is palpable.
“What I’m finding is that the very process to create relationships of trust that will enable us to work together is being undermined during the campaign season,” Lewis complained.
The groups also went on a blitzkrieg against Sen. Frank Antenori, R- Tucson, Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber and businessman Joe Ortiz, a Republican from Casa Grande.
Several Capitol observers, including those with ties to public safety unions, concluded that organized labor is taking a gigantic gamble by going after McComish and Lewis, who have been friendlier to unions than many of their Republican colleagues.
Lewis, for example, voted against the proposal to prohibit automatic paycheck deduction for union dues — a proposal aimed at curbing unions’ clout by going after their bottom line.
Don Isaacson, who lobbies for the Fraternal Order of Police but offered his own views for this article, said the public safety unions don’t see McComish and Lewis as “prepositioned” against labor.
“My guess is the unions believe that taking them out is a means to the end, and they want the end so bad that they don’t care about the complications that they’re going to cause in their strategy,” Isaacson said.
“The unions are engaging in a strategy that is long-term harmful to themselves,” he added.
Mike Colleto, an officer with the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Arizona who was at the vanguard of the battle against anti-union legislation this year, echoed the sentiment. Colletto said there are broader implications if Lewis and McComish lose.
“Do they really want Andy Biggs to be the president of the Senate? Did they think that’s better for their members and the state of Arizona?” Colletto said, adding he warned the teachers’ union not to push through with the strategy.
Lewis and McComish have pledged to support Senate President Steve Pierce’s bid to keep his leadership position, which means their electoral loss would leave fewer votes for Pierce.
The president is being challenged by Biggs, who is perceived to be more ideological and more anti-labor.
“I asked them not to do it. You may win the battle, and lose the war,” Colletto said.
Already, Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is arguing that unions have raided their members’ paychecks to underwrite political campaigns.
“It’s an absolute act of war,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times, adding in an email later, “If you’re shopping for an early Christmas or Hanukkah gift for Arizona, I recommend paycheck protection legislation.”
But Democratic lawmakers with ties to unions and a source who is intimate with the outside spending said the Republicans brought on the war on themselves, and the unions are tired of playing nice and finding themselves at the receiving end of anti-labor proposals.
In the last few years, Republicans aggressively sought to weaken unions, they said, citing a litany of anti-labor bills, some of which McComish and Lewis supported.
The two, for example, agreed with Gov. Jan Brewer to make it easier to fire state employees, they said. And some Republicans even tried to eliminate collective bargaining rights, they pointed out.
“It has been a war against workers and organized labor over the last two years,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who was also astounded at organized labor’s monetary involvement in this election.
“That is all due (to) the hostile environment that the Republicans and Governor Brewer have created over the last two years,” he said, surmising that the goal of Democrats and unions is to shrink the Republican majority or overtake the Senate to create a more labor- friendly environment.
He added that McComish and Lewis happened to be in tossup districts.
“It really starts to become a chess game,” Gallardo said, adding that a slimmer GOP majority means it is easier to defeat legislation.
Echoing Gallardo, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, complained that whenever foes of unions like the Goldwater Institute or the state business chamber come knocking, all bets are off.
“The days of just trying to cut deals with the so-called moderate Republicans are done,” he said. “We didn’t do this kind of effort in the last time around, and they still went in for the kill.”
A Democratic source familiar with the alliance behind the attacks on Republicans said organized labor and other groups decided they would no longer sit back while Republicans chip away at them or decimate programs they support.
The source argued that regardless of who was in charge of the Senate, the Legislature still passed anti-labor bills. The alliance, he said, doesn’t believe things will change based on who becomes Senate leader next year.
The source also warned that this is only the beginning.
“Because of the extreme nature and the reckless behavior of the Republican majority over the last several years, they have now made Arizona a battleground state. And the thing that they haven’t realized yet is that time is not on their side,” he said, adding the electoral demographics are shifting in favor of Democrats.
The bulk of the spending against Republican candidates in tossup districts came from two groups.
But while it wasn’t immediately apparent who their funders are, all the indications pointed to organized labor, including the Arizona Education Association.
One of the groups is the Arizona Accountability Project, whose chairwoman, Linda Somo, is also the president of the Arizona Education Association-Retired, an affiliate of the teachers’ union.
The other group is Revitalize Arizona. One of its funders is the Arizona Pipe Trades 469, another local union. Revitalize Arizona is chaired by Israel Torres, a lawyer and the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 2006.
As of Nov. 1, the two groups have already spent nearly $770,000 combined against these Republicans: Sen. John McComish, Phoenix; Sen. Jerry Lewis, Mesa; Sen. Frank Antenori, Tucson; Rep. Chester Crandall, Heber; and businessman Joe Ortiz, Casa Grande.
Robbie Sherwood, who speaks for the Arizona Accountability Project, didn’t deny that the AEA is among the groups that are behind the outside spending against McComish and Lewis.
While he won’t identify them, Sherwood said a broad coalition of groups and individuals is seeking to create a more moderate Legislature.
He added that the coalition is here to stay.
“We are creating permanent structure in Arizona to effect long-term positive change in Arizona politics,” he said. “We will be active in a variety of races in the future.”
— Luige Del Puerto