Thursday, January 21, 1999

The road to
D.C. is paved with
labor $$$

Union money figures heavily
in campaign contributions for
Hawaii's congressional delegation

By Pete Pichaske


WASHINGTON -- The campaign war chests of three of the four members of Hawaii's all-Democratic congressional delegation are heavy with labor donations that are among the most generous in Congress.

An analysis of campaign contributions in the past election cycle shows that Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Rep. Patsy Mink and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Daniel Akaka rely inordinately on donations from labor groups.

Art The analysis also found that Sen. Daniel Inouye, whose union contributions are the paltriest of the group, has the most diverse list of donors -- including healthy contributions from the entertainment industry, pro-Israel groups and casino and gambling interests -- and that Abercrombie relies far more than the others on PAC contributions.

The analysis was based on figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog group.

The CRP found that in 1997-98, 63 percent of Mink's campaign money (including all PAC money and contributions $200 and bigger) came from labor-related organizations or individuals.

For Abercrombie, the figure was 46 percent, for Akaka 29 percent, and for Inouye 9 percent. (For senators, the CRP tallied donations from the previous six years, 1993-98.)

A review of donations for lawmakers likely to draw heavy labor support -- liberal Democrats from heavily unionized states -- found only two who took in a higher proportion of labor money than either Mink or Abercrombie: Rep. Major Owens of New York (70 percent) and Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey (52 percent).

Mink suggested her figure was misleading, since most of her money comes from individual donations smaller than $200. In fact, records show that slightly less than half her campaign money is from either a PAC or a large contributor, a significantly smaller percentage than the other Hawaii lawmakers.

"Labor PACs are not a big part of my campaign money," she said.

Art But even including the small contributions, labor money accounted for 29 percent of her total, well above the congressional average.

Figures for 1997-98 were not available, but in the preceding two years, the average lawmaker here received 8 percent of his or her contributions (not including small donations) from labor, and the average Democrat 17 percent -- far below the standards set by Mink and Abercrombie.

CRP officials said generous labor contributions generally suggest a picture that fits the Hawaii lawmakers: a Democratic office-holder from a heavily unionized state who almost always votes the labor position.

"The candidates are probably loyal labor votes and they've been rewarded for their loyalty," said the CRP's Paul Hendrie.

Indeed, all four members of the delegation consistently score high with labor groups, especially Abercrombie and Mink.

Both House members, for example, have a "97" lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO, meaning they have voted the union's position on 97 percent of the votes tallied during their congressional careers.

Akaka's lifetime score is 91; Inouye's is 90.

A score of 90 is enough to earn the title "friend of labor."

The lawmakers say their labor money is merely a natural result of their pro-labor voting records and Hawaii's powerful, prevalent unions.

"Hawaii's labor unions are very, very active," said Abercrombie. "Lots of working people support me. It's the most solid base that I've had . . . they're obviously appreciative of what I've done."

Added Abercrombie: "I can't ask them not to give me money."

"Sen. Akaka has a strong record on issues of concern to working men and women" and the contributions reflect that, said Akaka spokesman Paul Cardus.

Advocates of stricter limits on campaign fund-raising and spending, meanwhile, say big labor contributions illustrate the basic problem with the current system: Costly campaigns lead to hefty contributions from special interests that have a stake in legislation.

"This is not string-free money," said Jennifer Lamson, vice president of grass-roots lobbying for Common Cause. Generous donations from specific sources, she said, "can raise questions in the minds of constituents."

Common Cause recommends a system with more public funding of campaigns and more limits on spending and PAC contributions.

Hawaii GOP Chairwoman Donna Alcantara, who argued that Hawaii's labor unions "basically won this (1998) election for all the Democrats," complained of an unhealthy bond between the unions and the state's Democratic office-holders.

That bond, she said, adds to Hawaii's economic woes by contributing to a bloated, costly government.

"It's a major problem, because the unions are putting handcuffs on businesses, and taxpayers have no representative at the table with the unions," she said. "The elected representatives are with the unions."

Alcantara's counterpart, Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Walter Heen, dismissed suggestions there is anything sinister about a candidate accepting generous labor contributions.

"Labor and the Democratic Party have always had the same goals -- uplifting the common wheel, lifting everybody up," said Heen, who said he was not surprised by the labor money given Mink and Abercrombie.

The ties between labor and the Democrats, he said, are "no more unhealthy than the ties between large businesses and the Republican Party.

"Hawaii may be the last bastion of union strength in the country," Heen added. "People forget it was the unions that got us where we are today ... The Democratic Party in Hawaii hasn't forgotten."

Inouye is the lone Hawaii legislator here whose labor contributions did not dwarf money from other sources.

Although he raised more money from labor than any of the four except Abercrombie, he raised more money from financial interests and lawyers and lobbyists, and nearly as much from transportation and defense interests.

As for PAC contributions, they were the source of 65 percent of Abercrombie's funds, with 33 percent coming from individuals. The balance came from other candidates or political parties.

For the rest of the delegation, the totals were almost reversed: Mink received 41 percent of her money from PACs, 56 percent from individuals; Akaka got 34 percent from PACs and 65 percent from individuals; Inouye received 33 percent from PACs, 65 percent from individuals.

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