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On Tuesday afternoon, officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers union met at the DFL headquarters in St. Paul with Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.

Unions boost efforts of pro-DFL troika

Bernie Hesse is political director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189. On Tuesday, UFCW officials donated $100,000 to assist DFL efforts to win back the House and Senate. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

On Tuesday afternoon, officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers union met at the DFL headquarters in St. Paul with Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen. The union officials didn’t come empty-handed: They handed over checks totaling $100,000 to assist DFL efforts to win back the House and Senate.

“Our No. 1 goal is to return the [DFL] majority to the Senate and the House,” said Bernie Hesse, political director for UFCW Local 1189. “We never want to see right-to-work ever again. We also want to see sanity brought back to property taxes.”

The DFL-aligned independent expenditure landscape will once again be dominated by three financially linked organizations: Alliance for a Better Minnesota, Win Minnesota and the 2012 Fund. Those organizations played a vital role in helping DFL Gov. Mark Dayton win the gubernatorial contest in 2010 and are poised to play a similar role in this year’s 201 legislative contests.

Win Minnesota and the 2012 Fund have taken in nearly $2 million so far this year. That money came primarily from wealthy individual donors — most notably $500,000 from Dayton’s former wife, Alida Messinger — and labor unions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Minnesota State Council kicked in $225,000, for instance, while the Minnesota AFL-CIO contributed $100,000.

So far roughly half of that money has been funneled to Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) for campaign efforts. The group, headed by executive director Carrie Lucking, has spent roughly $640,000 on television ad buys targeting legislative Republicans, split between cable and the broadcast networks. In addition, ABM spent roughly $13,000 each on lit pieces attacking four GOP incumbents: Reps. Keith Downey of Edina, David Hancock of Bemidji, and Doug Wardlow of Eagan, and Sen. Ted Lillie of Woodbury. (Downey is running for an open Senate seat.)

Some unions going large for DFL

But as the UFCW’s recent contributions to the House and Senate caucuses show, there are other independent expenditure efforts underway designed to bolster DFL efforts. Much of the financial muscle is coming from labor unions, although there is a split this election cycle in how unions are approaching legislative contests. Many of the construction trade unions — most notably the North Central Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 — have gone out of their way to endorse a bipartisan slate of candidates. The carpenters union, for example, has endorsed 25 GOP candidates.

But public sector unions — most notably AFSCME Council 5, Education Minnesota and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) — are almost exclusively backing DFL candidates. “AFSCME’s top priority is to elect a better Legislature that can work with Gov. Dayton to create a better Minnesota for working families,” said Jennifer Munt, AFSCME Council 5’s public affairs director. “Our message is quite simple: Dump team extreme.”

AFSCME Council 5’s PAC reported contributions of just over $500,000 so far this year in its most recent campaign finance filing, and had $235,000 remaining in the bank. It’s contributed nearly $50,000 to the state DFL party and $50,000 to the 2012 Fund.

The union is also mobilizing members to make phone calls, knock on doors and distribute literature. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening between now and Election Day, there will be AFSCME phone banks operating in both the Twin Cities and Duluth. “We’ve got 43,000 members that are a microcosm of the state,” Munt said. “We live in all of the 87 counties in the state of Minnesota.”

AFSCME Council 5 has also loaned out its highly regarded political director, Jim Niland, to the DFL to oversee get out the vote efforts. Niland’s salary will be treated as an in-kind contribution from AFSCME to the DFL House and Senate caucuses. In the wake of losing control of both legislative chambers in 2010, there was widespread grumbling about legislative DFLers’ feeble GOTV operation. In fact, some unions had considered withholding support from the caucuses if changes weren’t made. “That’s where there was a lot of anger, [over] the GOTV thing, it being so poorly run the last time,” Hesse said.

The SEIU state council is another major labor player that is primarily backing Democrats. In addition to the union’s $225,000 contribution to the 2012 Fund, it has donated roughly $220,000 to the state DFL party and cut checks for just over $10,000 to the House and Senate caucuses. SEIU has roughly 70 individuals, both staff and members, working full-time on campaign activities. For instance, on Saturday they’re organizing a caravan down to Faribault to door-knock on behalf of DFL Rep. Patti Fritz, who faces a tough re-election campaign in a swing district.

“We are very focused on winning working families majorities in both bodies of the state Legislature,” said Brian Elliott, executive director of the SEIU state council. “That is where we are focusing the bulk of our work … We’ve seen a Legislature that has completely the wrong priorities. They’re not working for us; they’re working for corporate special interests.”

Smaller groups enter fray

American Indian tribes, another traditional source of financial support for DFLers, have spread their money more evenly since Republicans won control of the Legislature. But Democrats still have a pronounced advantage in tapping those dollars, especially on the Senate side. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, which operates the state’s largest tribal PAC, contributed $136,000 total to the DFL House and Senate caucuses and $45,000 to the House GOP caucus, but shut out the Senate GOP completely. In fact, the only tribal PAC to give any money to Senate Republicans was the Prairie Island Indian Community, which cut two checks totaling just over $10,000.

DFL candidates will likely also be bolstered by some smaller independent expenditure efforts. One group, the Conservation Minnesota Voter Fund, reported $29,000 cash on hand in its most recent campaign finance report. According to Molly Pederson, the group’s political director, they will be focusing their efforts on suburban swing districts that will be crucial in determining control of the Legislature. The group is sending out traditional direct mail pieces focused on issues such as safe drinking water and protecting kids from toxic chemicals. “We’ve found that those are issues that have broad support,” Pederson said. “They’re not Republican issues; they’re not Democrat issues; they’re not swing voter issues. These are issues that we think Minnesotans care about regardless of party affiliation.”

But Conservation Minnesota, which doesn’t exclusively back DFLers, is also trying out a new means of reaching out to voters. The group put out 10,000 phone calls in targeted areas and conducted surveys about which environmental issues are important to potential voters. Conservation Minnesota is then following up with a letter to the individual who took the survey informing them of their legislator’s voting record on issues that they indicated were important.

The letter won’t explicitly tell individuals who they should vote for so it might not qualify as a political expenditure. But Pederson says the organization didn’t want to risk running afoul of campaign finance rules and thus decided to use money from its PAC to pay for the effort. “Since this is the first time we’ve done this and it’s an election year, it isn’t something that we’re comfortable doing with our nonprofit,” she said.

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