Allan Fung, the Republican nominee for Rhode Island governor, has made cutting the state's workforce a central theme of his campaign. But if he wins, public sector unions might be a crucial factor in his victory. It's not because they support Fung. It's because they refuse to throw their weight behind his Democratic opponent, Gina Raimondo.
Raimondo, the current state treasurer, had to spend $5 million to make it through a three-way primary, leaving her with scant resources for the general election. Traditionally, Democrats have relied on support from unions, both for reliable votes and for on-the-ground help with crucial get-out-the vote efforts. But when Raimondo successfully pushed for a bold pension reform plan in 2011 — which now faces a lawsuit, backed by the state's public employee unions — she burned bridges with this still-powerful force in Rhode Island politics.
Raimondo has won the endorsement of many private sector unions, which largely backed her opponents in the primary — including the building trades and SEIU 1199. (The Brotherhood of Correctional Officers also endorsed her.) But her support from labor is tepid at best. Tellingly, a Providence Journal/WPRI-TV poll has Fung up 12 points in labor households.
Fung, the mayor of Cranston, doesn't have that problem with his own base. After winning a tight primary, he has enjoyed glowing attention from Republican bigwigs. Mitt Romney has hosted fund-raisers. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made campaign stops. And Fung's war chest, which was $911,000 as of Oct. 6, is almost three times the size of Raimondo's — a dangerous position for the treasurer to be in, though recent polls show she has a lead over her opponent.
Raimondo's predicament highlights a challenge for Democratic politicians, eager for the "reform" mantle but loath to give up traditional support. It's also a test of unions' political clout. Union members are in the minority; the bulk of Rhode Islanders might well appreciate Raimondo's fiscal message. But if Raimondo loses due to money and manpower, future Democrats might think twice before they cross state employees again.