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Failed union legislation drives primary challenges to incumbent Democrats

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As she remembers it, the first time Charlene Fernandez ever had her picture in the newspaper was in 2015, when a photographer caught her on the House floor pushing back on a Republican plan to limit the role of labor unions in construction projects.

That role was already in question. In 2011, the Legislature voted to prevent governments from requiring project labor agreements – a type of pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with a given union – in public projects. Four years later, it was debating a bill prohibiting public entities from requiring that workers on government projects participate in U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship programs.

But Fernandez, then just a freshman in an impotent House Democratic minority, couldn’t stop Republicans from passing the bill, which Gov. Doug Ducey eventually signed.

In the time since, Democrats have inched closer and closer to a majority in the state House. Fernandez has ascended to minority leader, with a caucus of vocally pro-labor lawmakers at her back. But Democrats have been unable to make any headway on the labor agreement issue – a central desire of the union constituency that is key to progressive power in the state.

Now, the ghosts of defeat, of deals gone awry and of soured relationships are haunting Fernandez and several of her close allies in the party.

Influential labor attorney and lobbyist Israel Torres is flooding contested Democratic primaries with union cash, using an independent expenditure group run out of his firm to put new bodies in the Democratic caucus, even as most of the party and its allies have turned their attention to November, when Democrats hope to at long last topple a Republican House majority.

Israel Torres

Israel Torres

Revitalize Arizona, a PAC helmed by staffers from the Torres Consulting and Law Group, spent more than $129,000 in the last quarter alone, largely in support of candidates vying for a seat in progressive districts currently represented by progressive Democrats with close ties to Fernandez.

Torres’ enemies – of which there are quite a few – see a personal, petty attempt at consolidating power and settling scores, a union big shot embarking on a perplexing crusade against progressive incumbents with union ties, hoping that his chosen candidates will arise from the ashes of burnt bridges.

“He’s running non-union members against union members,” said Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale. “It’s disgraceful.”

But Torres sees it differently. Democrats in Arizona take union support for granted, he said, and they made promises they couldn’t fulfill. Multiple attempts to restore project labor agreements have surfaced since 2015, and all have failed, including a 2019 effort that is fueling this batch of primary challengers.

“If an elected is in a place to help a worker agenda and chooses not to, or worse — takes a role behind the scenes to kill a worker agenda — then that elected or leadership team should be held accountable by workers,” Torres said. “It’s actually not very complicated.”

Revitalize Arizona, which has raised almost $1.3 million to date, gets almost all of its funding from a group called Residents for Accountability – itself a Torres-run political spending arm for Arizona Pipe Trades Local 469, one of several building trades unions for which Torres acts as a political consultant. It’s been active in Arizona elections for the better part of a decade, and generally supports candidates on both sides of the aisle who could be amenable to union agendas. The size and political influence of the PAC and of the Pipe Trades union make it something of a state chamber of commerce for the left, several lawmakers suggested.

Athena Salman

Athena Salman

Revitalize is spending most heavily on challengers to Andrade and Tempe lawmakers Rep. Athena Salman and Sen. Juan Mendez, who all take pride in their progressive bona fides and their friendliness with organized labor. This is especially the case with Andrade, a vocal advocate for union-backed bills at the Legislature and a rail conductor organized with SMART-TD, a large industrial union.

And yet Torres’ PAC spent more than $1,000 against Andrade just last week, and makes regular expenditures in support of his challenger, a Realtor from Litchfield Park named Teddy Castro, as well as Andrade’s more moderate seatmate, Rep. Cesar Chavez.

The group began its support of the Castro campaign – which Andrade called “bought and paid for” by Torres – in June, when it paid $12,000 to a consulting firm called FieldCorps LLC to support Castro’s run. Around that same time, Castro received a $10,400 donation from Arizona Pipe Trades 469, which consults the Torres Group when making political decisions, a spokeswoman for Torres said.

In LD26, Revitalize has thrown its weight largely behind Debbie Nez Manuel and Jana Lynn Granillo, though the PAC has hedged its bets and spent in support of Salman as well.

Nez Manuel, a Navajo activist who helped lobby the Legislature to approve a study on missing and murdered indigenous women last year, is hoping to take the vacant House seat in the district. But Salman has no intentions of letting Nez Manuel be her seatmate. She’s running on a slate with Mendez – her husband, the district’s incumbent senator and Granillo’s opponent – and Melody Hernandez, a paramedic and union shop steward who’s able to keep up with Salman’s progressive rhetoric and politics.

Charlene Fernandez

Charlene Fernandez

Nez Manuel has found herself the darling of several outside groups aside from Revitalize, including the Arizona Integrity PAC, Better Leaders, Better Arizona and others. Integrity PAC, an operation of former Mike Bloomberg 2020 adviser Joe Wolf, is funded mostly through the Arizona Association of Realtors and corporations like Pinnacle West and Southwest Gas. Both it and Better Leaders, Better Arizona are backing business-friendly Democrats in several primaries – as Wolf put it last week, PACs like these support the candidates that are most likely to take meetings with them.

For the record, Nez Manuel denies knowing anything about Revitalize or any of the other groups spending on her behalf, and expressed bemusement with Salman’s attempts at painting her as a corporate-bought moderate.

But Torres said that his electoral spending has nothing to do with broader debates within the party over ideology, bipartisanship and the strength of the leadership team.

“Our strong preference is to not play in Democratic primaries,” Torres said. “However, Revitalize has and will continue to hold electeds accountable — even if that means supporting challengers to … incumbents.”

Torres is mostly referring to a tiff that arose over failed union legislation in the 2019 session. That year, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, introduced HB2406, a bill that would have effectively reversed the state’s ban on project labor agreement requirements in public works contracts – the logic being that a center-right Republican had a better chance of getting the bill passed than a progressive Democrat.

The previous year, Salman tried and failed to run a similar bill, HB2641, which predictably did not get a hearing in the House Government Committee. Torres had convinced Democratic leadership to let a Republican run the bill that time around, several lawmakers within the party said.

Richard Andrade

Richard Andrade

But Shope’s bill fared no better, bouncing from committee to committee without a hearing. Even if it passed, its path in the Senate was uncertain. But Andrade hatched a plan. Rep. Noel Campbell, a Prescott Republican who chaired the Transportation Committee, was running a bill to increase the state gas tax, something of a masochistic annual tradition for Campbell. The legislation would substantially increase the tax, which had sat dormant since the 1990s, in order to fund transportation improvements.

The issue could prove toxic for members of both parties, but especially Campbell’s fellow Republicans, who resent increasing taxes for any reason. He would need bipartisan support to get it done, and Andrade told Cambell that Democrats could help if he allowed an amendment restoring project labor agreements on the bill.

How certain Andrade was that this would be possible isn’t clear. He maintains that he knew the plan – which amounted to tacking one controversial bill to another – was full of pitfalls, though it likely presented the only path forward. He said that he was able to convince David Martin, the president of the Arizona Chapter of Associated General Contractors of America, to remain neutral on the bill, clearing a potential hurdle.

Campbell, however, said Martin was vociferously opposed to the labor amendment, which Democrats hoped to offer during floor debate.

“The contractors did not want to be tied to that,” he said. “I couldn’t convince Fernandez … to support me without the amendment included in it.”

Without the amendment, Democrats would have to tell their constituents that they backed a tax increase without any wins for unions. It became, in effect, a poison pill: no amendment, no bill.

Ultimately, a last-ditch effort to include the amendment in the bill on the floor failed, as did the gas tax legislation itself.

The failure of those bills outraged Torres, several lawmakers said, but the apparent disinterest by Democrats to push harder for the legislation was even more frustrating. In Torres’ eyes, Andrade and his allies in Democratic leadership espoused union values but couldn’t deliver results. And in private meetings with other Democrats, Andrade was frequently critical of Torres and his personality, several of his colleagues said.

“Andrade was out of his lane,” Torres said. “It’s just politics.”

A year later, Torres is delivering on his promises for accountability. While he’s not funding a challenge against Fernandez, his support of Nez Manuel, Castro and Granillo amounts to a challenge against her coalition ahead of an election that could very well propel her to House speaker – assuming her members don’t back an alternative.

“If [Revitalize’s spending] happens to affect that race, then the leader has nobody to blame but herself,” Torres said.

To Andrade and his allies, the whole affair is preposterous. Democrats are still in the minority — with or without a purported deal to get the labor bill passed, they can’t set the Legislature’s agenda, he said.

“It goes to show, holding personal vendettas is what this is really about,” Andrade said. “Instead of investing money to turn Arizona blue, so we can get PLAs, he’s running his core to basically say that he controls the Legislature.”

It’s just Israel being Israel, suggested Delbert Hawk, the political director of IBEW Local 640 — which used to employ Torres as a consultant.

“The problem I have with him is bully tactics,” Hawk said. “We used to employ them, but we let them go. It wasn’t working … we weren’t seeing anything for that kind of money. People would say, ‘Oh, Israel said to do this.’ I don’t give a (expletive) what Israel said. That’s my local. That’s when I knew we had a problem. It became the Torres Show, the Torres Brand.”

 

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