In Orange County: Unions Spend Big, Lose Big

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by Steven Greenhut,

Before Tuesday’s elections, I wrote about a nasty union battle in the heart of conservative Orange County, Calif.


The good news: The unions might have a nearly endless source of cash in the form of employee dues, but they don’t win every battle. On Tuesday, in an election that holds nationwide lessons, a pension-reforming candidate for OC supervisor withstood a million-dollar-plus union onslaught and lived to tell about it. A county Republican Party chairman, put to the test over his “manifesto” to fellow GOP officials, is now taking his lessons to other counties.

In January, Chairman Scott Baugh berated Republicans who side with union benefit-enhancement deals and declared that no GOP candidate for office would receive party support if the candidate did not eschew union support. OC GOP support is a big deal in that still-overwhelmingly Republican county.

The showdown came this week in a contest to replace a supervisor, Chris Norby, who went on to the state Assembly. Fullerton Councilman Shawn Nelson took party chairman Scott Baugh’s pledge to refuse union funds seriously as he sought election to the powerful county board. Nelson was named the county GOP Elected Official of the Year after he blew the whistle on a retroactive pension deal in his city. He displayed the courage Baugh said he is seeking in Republican elected officials.

Nelson’s top opponent, Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu comes from the go-along, get-along wing of the party. He signed the “no union support” deal, but then he sat back and said nothing as the county’s major public employee unions dropped upwards of a million dollars on his behalf – including for vile smear ads against Nelson, depicting him as a friend of child molesters because his law firm does criminal defense work. Sidhu also promised that, as supervisor, he would drop a county lawsuit challenging the retroactive portion of a past pension increase. It was almost unbelievable the number of mailers and TV and radio ads the unions paid for – something bordering on overkill for this type of county race.

Baugh knew that his manifesto was on the line. If the unions won, then GOP candidates would know that the GOP’s demands were to be taken less seriously than the union’s threats. The county GOP mailed its own pieces on behalf of Nelson, but they went only to GOP voters and were far fewer than what the unions mustered. Nelson supporters reminded voters that all the ads were sponsored by the county’s self-interested public-sector unions. That might have been the key.

Going into Election Day, the Sidhu forces were confident, but they never came close. Nelson won 29.9 percent to 18.4 percent, with several other candidates in this supposedly nonpartisan race receiving the rest of the vote. Sidhu wasn’t too far ahead of a couple of the other low-spending candidates, which showed how little the union money had bought him. Nelson fills the seat immediately because it is vacant and then Nelson and Sidhu face off in the November election. It seems unlikely the unions will invest that much again given the results from Tuesday. Other candidates will be sure to take note.

The lesson is as clear in California as it is in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie is fighting against the unions: Candidates can take on labor and. Maybe the tide is turning.

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