White House Seeks to Co-opt Union Tactics

Friday January 16, 2004

The Bush-Cheney political operation is working with business groups to help President Bush overcome the impact of pro-labor coalitions that have sprung up since the enactment of campaign finance reform legislation.  

The business groups have devised an ambitious plan to counteract the anti-Bush forces that have already mustered a $10 million dollar pledge from Wall Street financier George Soros.  

Ken Mehlman, who left his post as White House political advisor last year to oversee the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, is playing an important role in organizing the new effort.  

Now that the law bars the use of most forms of so-called soft money in election campaigns, a large segment of the business community appears to be turning more and more to a labor union model that entails direct advocacy among employees, some of whom also could be union members.  

The campaign finance laws require the group to maintain at least a semblance of nonpartisan independence, but there is no question that it favors Bush’s re-election in November.  

For the last several months, trade associations have been working on collaborative plans to influence employees within their respective industries and to get them to the polls in the hope of electing pro-business candidates. They plan to hold a “summit meeting” soon to formalize their respective roles.  

But it is already evident that there are two prongs to the plan to boost the political impact of business in this election year. The first calls for informing employees about pro-business issues that affect them and encouraging them to vote for pro-business candidates.  

The second calls for rounding up endorsements from the heads of non-partisan trade and business associations for Bush.  

In addition to advancing the presumed benefits of the administration’s economic policies to their workers, the effort will be bolstered by endorsements from a separate group of industry leaders supporting the Bush-Cheney ticket. They plan to communicate their political preferences through a group that one Bush ally called “[business] association CEOs for Bush.”  

Although business groups have been begun to focus more on voter mobilization in recent years, the current efforts reflect a higher level of sophistication and urgency—in large part because of the passage of campaign finance reform. This is likely why Mehlman is personally involved in the effort.  

Mehlman has met with the organizers of the business voter-mobilization effort. To demonstrate their nonpartisan colors, they have also offered to meet with Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe.  

For their part, Democrats are suspicious of the group’s motives and ultimate allegiances.  

DNC Communications Director Debra DeShong said that after inquiring on the subject she could find no one at the committee who had been contacted by the coalition.  

“Our researchers said all these people are big Bush supporters and definitely right-leaning,” said DeShong.  

Mehlman has pushed the heads of nonpartisan trade associations to join the pro-Bush group.  

Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, said Mehlman is playing a key role in organizing “association CEOs for Bush.” Kuhn, a 1968 Yale classmate of Bush, is also a so-called GOP “Pioneer” who has raised more than $100,000 in hard money for Bush-Cheney campaign.  

Kuhn noted his trade association would not endorse Bush. It will, however, join in the large get-out-the-vote effort that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already launched with other groups.  

Kuhn acknowledged that by personally endorsing Bush, he could influence how employees in member companies vote.  

Another trade association head close to Bush who asked not to be identified by name noted the obstacles that now prevent business and trade groups from openly supporting Bush.  

“The overwhelming majority of [business] executives and association CEOs are not in a position to deliver their institution as an endorsing entity,” said the lobbyist. “Many groups will not even do candidate comparisons. They will only encourage their people to be informed, be registered, and actually vote.”  

The lobbyist added that a group such as “association CEOs for Bush” did not exist in 2000, a campaign that billed itself as an outside-the-Beltway insurgency.  

David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, is yet another trade association head who has personally done a lot to support Bush. His group will also forgo making an official endorsement. However, Rehr said he would likely join association CEOs for Bush.  

“I don’t think there is any trade association that is going to say to its members, ‘Vote for the president’ because it triggers all the campaign finance laws,” said Rehr, also a “Pioneer” fundraiser who has raised over $100,000 in individual contributions for the Bush-Cheney reelection drive. “But [associations] have a constitutional right to say to their members how [candidates’] positions will affect them.”  

During the beer wholesalers’ annual convention in Las Vegas, Rehr addressed 3,600 members on policy issues. Behind him and the speaker’s podium, Bush’s picture was projected on a large screen.  

The voter mobilization effort has been spearheaded by seven major trade associations: the Associated General Contractors, The Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  

Jade West, with the wholesaler-distributors, who is helping to organize the effort, said that between 60 and 65 trade groups have joined the effort, which will allow member groups to exchange ideas on how best to inform their business employees on issues related to their industry, encourage employees to register to vote, and show them how to obtain absentee ballots.  

West said Mehlman is not directing the group.  

“It’s more of a testament to Ken Mehlman’s smarts that he recognizes that this is something that can be helpful to them without being a part of them because we have to be independent.”  

This article originally ran in The Hill.