As Courtni Pugh takes over as political director of the state council of the Service Employees International Union, her union may be getting ready to make waves. SEIU’s state council is deadlocked over whether or not to back an initiative that would change the state’s redistricting laws, and will take another endorsement vote on the initiative next week.
If SEIU does wind up backing Proposition 11, it would be in the face of opposition from Democratic Party leadership in Washington and Sacramento, and from some other state labor groups.
The timing of SEIU’s endorsement vote on the measure and Pugh taking over for former political director Dean Tipps is purely coincidental. Indeed, Tipps telegraphed SEIU’s possible support of the measure to Assembly Democrats at their last caucus retreat. But whatever the union’s ultimate decision on Proposition 11, the internal debate over the issue is indicative of the turbulent waters that Pugh is wading into as she takes the reins of one of the most important and powerful political organizations in California.
Democrats in Sacramento have had no greater friend over the last several years than SEIU. The union played a pivotal role in beating back Gov. Schwarzenegger’s special election initiatives in 2005, and continues to be a major player in state legislative races, spending millions in independent expenditure dollars to elect Democrats.
But under the direction of President Andy Stern, SEIU has sought to assert itself as a national political force, orchestrating a divorce from the country’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, and affirming its political independence.
SEIU led the charge for former Speaker Fabian Nunez’s health care overhaul last year — despite some reservations from others in organized labor — with a strong push from Stern, who saw Nunez’s proposal as a key to leading a national push for health care reform.
The fact that SEIU finds itself divided, and possibly at odds with Democratic Party leadership over redistricting is the latest illustration of an internal belief that the union, which represents nearly 2 million people nationwide, is powerful enough to take its own stand, regardless of what other political or labor leaders may think.
“We’re large enough to take risks,” says Pugh. “We’re going to do what’s best for working people, and for our membership.”
On the redistricting issue, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with Speaker Karen Bass and Senate Leader Don Perata, have expressed concerns that the initiative could adversely affect ethnic representation in Congress. But others say Democrats in Congress could actually wind up gaining seats if the state’s redistricting laws are changed, though some incumbents’ may be in danger.
Stern’s leadership has not been without its rough spots. The SEIU/AFL split caused some rifts in the national labor movement. And within SEIU, tensions boiled over between Stern and Sal Rosselli, head of the United Health Care Workers, who complained that Stern had “blocked, circumvented and manipulated” the power of local unions within SEIU.
But despite it all, SEIU remains arguably the most powerful interest group in Sacramento. They have pushed major policy proposals, including a plan to tweak the state’s term limits law and Nunez’s health care plan, the latter despite objections from other labor leaders. And SEIU’s role in legislative and statewide elections is pivotal in Democratic Party politics.
In the last election cycle, the union won 11 of the 12 Democratic legislative primaries it participated in. And with a full slate of ballot initiatives and competitive legislative races in the fall, not to mention a presidential race, the SEIU political machine is once again ramping up.
But they are doing so now without the leadership of Dean Tipps, the longtime political director of SEIU’s state council, and one of the most powerful political forces in Sacramento. Tipps has been replaced by Pugh, a labor organizer with D.C. ties, a close relationship to Stern and the national SEIU leadership, and deep respect from ground troops and labor leaders in Sacramento.
“Courtni is one of the brightest and best political talents on the scene,” said Roger Salazar, who worked with Pugh on John Edwards’ presidential campaign in 2004. “If anybody’s going to be able to step up and continue SEIU’s political legacy, it’s Courtni.”
Despite some of the acrimony that has swirled around the organization in recent years, Pugh says her union has continued to grow in both size and political strength. She says while her union will continue to play a key role in policy decisions inside the Capitol, her role will mostly involve boosting SEIU’s political clout at the ballot box.
“We have a very effective governmental relations shop, which helps a lot,” she says. “In the era of term limits, the G.R. work paired with the political work brings a different dimension. Our job is to hold elected [officials] responsible.”
Pugh says she “cut my teeth in Chicago politics,” but has worked both on Capitol Hill, and in the trenches of the state labor movement.
“She did a phenomenal job” as the County Fed’s political director, “especially around the special election. She’s great to work with, and she’s very tough,” said Maria Elena Durazo, execuitive director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “She’s got a lot of experience under her belt, but she’s young enough where she’s going to learn a whole lot more, which is a good thing.”
Durazo said it was also nice to see another woman elevated to such a high-profile position inside the labor movement. “I love it,” she said. “It’s important for people to see that there are women in the higest position of leadership.”
Pugh says political organizing has “become a lost art,” as many political groups focus on big political contributions and mail and television campaigns to sway voters. “It makes the work we do more important, and in some ways, more effective now than it’s ever been.”
In California, Pugh says SEIU’s short-term focus is deflecting some of the deepest cuts that have been proposed in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget, particularly in the health care budget. “I think there is a coalition of the willing focused on how to protect the health and human services budget,” she says.
But much of that work will fall to SEIU’s lobbying team, and the army of “purple shirts” that descend on the Capitol every few weeks. Pugh is already casting an eye toward November. She can rattle off district numbers of targeted legislative races, and clearly has a firm grasp on the political priorities for SEIU in November. Among them will be electing Barack Obama.
Pugh says SEIU members from California will be farmed out across the Western states, developing ground campaigns and focused on boosting Latino turnout nationwide to help boost Obama’s prospects.
Pugh downplays the very public rifts that have landed SEIU in the headlines in recent months. She says that while there has been a bit of spirited internal debate, much of it is par for the course for organized labor, and hasn’t detracted from SEIU’s focus.
“We haven’t missed a beat,” she says, adding that Arnold Schwarzenegger, inadvertently, may have helped keep organized labor together in what was a trying time.
In the midst of the AFL-SEIU split, Schwarzenegger&
rsquo;s special election helped a divided labor movement in California focus on beating back the governor’s ballot proposals. But two years later, SEIU was standing with Schwarzenegger, pushing for Nunez’s AB 8, which would have expanded health insurance coverage to many Californians who currently do not have coverage.
“WE saw AB 8 as an opportunity to lay a good foundation to get the rest of the country to move” on expanding health coverage to the uninsured, she says.
She has worked as a Congressional staffer in Washington, and at SEIU locals in California before signing on with Edwards in 2004. After the death of Miguel Contreras in 2005, Pugh was hired as political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor by former executive director Martin Ludlow.
One of her predecessors at the county-fed was a union organizer who went on to be elected to the state Assembly, Fabian Nunez.