Labor leader Dennis Rivera has been spending lots of time this month campaigning for a candidate he calls a “good friend” and “a friend of the working people.” The candidate is worth all the time and effort, he says, because he will make a “real difference in the lives” of the people he leads.
The candidate is not George Pataki, the Republican Governor of New York State and an unlikely ally of Mr. Rivera. The candidate is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the candidate of the leftist Workers Party, poised to become the next president of Brazil.
It is a sign of the contradictions of Mr. Rivera’s life these days that he is hopping back and forth between strategizing for an erstwhile communist and an erstwhile conservative Republican.
election has taken up so much of his time lately that Mr. Rivera has made no public appearances for Mr. Pataki since August, prompting many in the union movement to speculate that he cannot motivate his members to thwart the ambitions of the man who would be New York’s first black Governor, H. Carl McCall.
There’s plenty of fodder for that belief. An internal poll showed that Mr. McCall is leading Mr. Pataki among members of Local 1199 of the hospital-workers’ union, the union Mr. Rivera heads. This is not surprising-half the union’s membership is African-American or Caribbean, and when you factor in likely voters, union sources say, you’re talking about the majority of 1199’s members.
Below the leadership level, union staffers have long been ambivalent about Mr. Pataki. In March 2001, when Mr. Rivera held a rally to thank the Governor for his opposition to the naval bombing runs in Vieques, Puerto Rico, union staffers say they were literally ordered from their work floors into the auditorium where the rally was held. Even today, some mid-level managers can’t fathom how some of the union’s leadership, who share an ideological past more like Mr. da Silva’s than Mr. Pataki’s, can stomach organizing for the Republican-Conservative incumbent.
“I kid them all the time,” one of the managers told The Observer. “I mean, here are these black radicals campaigning against McCall.”
Mr. Rivera denies there is any lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Pataki. “That is not the case,” he insisted to The Observer . “We are active and have been active.” His operatives are activating their vaunted field operation, Mr. Rivera said, and he’s planned a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a nurse training center in the Bronx later this month. And campaign sources say that Mr. Rivera will be featured in upcoming radio and television ads for Mr. Pataki.
Indeed, even a question about whether Mr. Rivera was as committed to the Pataki campaign as before elicited a phone call from his top aide, Jennifer Cunningham, eager to dispel the notion that the union’s support had waned.
But all has not been smooth between the Pataki campaign and Mr. Rivera lately. One of Mr. Rivera’s chief jobs prior to last September’s primary was to help deliver the Independence Party line to Mr. Pataki-that way, hard-line Democrats wouldn’t have to pull a Republican or Conservative lever to vote for the Governor. The union devoted its resources and money to helping Mr. Pataki in his battle to keep businessman Thomas Golisano off the Independence Party line.
But Mr. Pataki lost the primary. Mr. Pataki’s spokesman,Michael McKeon, insists the campaign doesn’t blame Mr. Rivera. “Dennis worked hard and did a good job. Everything people say about their operation is true,” he said.
But the upshot remains that Local 1199 members have no choice but to vote Republican or Conservative if they intendtofollowtheir leadersinsupporting Mr. Pataki.
No one knows exactly how the union’s leaders are going to get their members to stray from the Democratic Party line. In Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2000, said one official familiar with 1199’s operations, union members simply called or knocked on doors in black neighborhoods to get out the vote, knowing those voters would overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate. “But I don’t see them doing that here,” the official wryly noted.
Ms. Cunningham wouldn’t say how the union’s field operation would work, leaving that to the Pataki campaign. Mr. McKeon declined to “get into specific strategy,” but did say that “1199 will help on Election Day to get the George Pataki vote out.”
Mr. Rivera wants Mr. Pataki to win the election; his own credibility, after all, is on the line. But don’t be surprised, assuming Mr. Pataki is re-elected, if the two allies find themselves at odds next year. The state budget is facing huge gaps, and it’s unlikely that health care will be exempt from cuts in state spending.
That’s certain to strain this odd but important relationship.
Joe Conason will return to this space next week.