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By Chris Opfer
April 15 — He's a hard-charging workers' rights advocate who wants to stop the Pacific Rim trade deal, revive “card check” legislation, and mandate paid sick leave, but so far Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) is getting only mixed public support from organized labor in his bid for a critical Senate seat.
Although Grayson is leading in at least one Senate Democratic primary poll, he's falling behind moderate Rep. Patrick Murphy in the state labor union endorsements tally. That's at least in part because some labor groups say they think Murphy has a better shot at winning a state-wide race to replace outgoing Sen. Marco Rubio (R).
“Patrick Murphy is in my opinion much more electable,” Frank Ortis, the Florida State Council of Machinists president and mayor of Pembroke Pines, Fla., told Bloomberg BNA April 15. “He's somewhat in the center and I think people in Florida identify with that.”
The Florida race is one of a handful of crucial contests that could determine whether Democrats regain control of the Senate next year. Labor groups and party leaders appear to be lining up behind Murphy in advance of what is likely to be a tight primary on Aug. 30 and a strong Republican challenge in the general election.
Murphy and his supporters have highlighted an ongoing congressional ethics investigation related to Grayson's management of a hedge fund account as proof that he's not fit for a general contest. Grayson, meanwhile, has pegged Murphy as an employer-friendly opportunist.
The Florida Education Association, which at 140,000 members strong is the state's largest teachers union, April 18 became the seventh labor group to publicly back Murphy's Senate run. The union joins the Florida Teamsters, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Association of Ironworkers, among other organizations supporting the second-term lawmaker.
The FEA's endorsement “was a very easy call,” president Joanne McCall told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail April 18. “Patrick listens. He doesn’t come with his mind made up,” McCall said. “He listens so that he can move an agenda forward that benefits more people.”
For his part, Murphy credits his support for education, training and other policies to “rebuild middle class” as the basis for his labor backing. “I think one of the key things that helped build the middle class in the first place was a strong labor movement,” Murphy told Bloomberg BNA April 15.
The Communication Workers of America and the Central Florida Building and Construction Trades Council are backing Grayson. Both groups pointed to his long history of fighting for labor rights in endorsing the three-term lawmaker.
“Rep. Grayson is constantly out front in the fight for our priorities, whether it's expanding retirement and health care benefits and opposing corporate money in politics, or taking on the deeply flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, Grayson has always been an unbending union ally,” CWA Local 3108 President Steve Wisniewski said during the endorsement announcement.
Grayson has a 98 percent voting score from the AFL-CIO, while Murphy—at 84 percent—lands toward the lower end of the spectrum among Democrats. Murphy also owns a 75 percent voting score from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, compared with Grayson's 30 percent.
The lawmakers share similar positions on a number of organized labor's top priorities. Both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and right-to-work laws that would ban “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements. Grayson and Murphy are also co-sponsors of legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour (H.R. 3164), require employers to offer up to seven days of paid leave per year (H.R. 932) and strengthen remedies for workers retaliated against for organizing activity (H.R. 3514).
Those positions have helped both lawmakers secure financial backing from a wide range of labor organizations, including some that are officially supporting the other candidate in the Senate race. The Machinists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers are among the groups that have contributed to both campaigns.
The starker difference between the candidates is one of style. Grayson, who is 58, is best known for his colorful footwear selections and brash approach to the legislative process. Murphy, who at 33 is the youngest Democrat in Congress, is a more deliberate, buttoned up legislator.
Members and labor groups are also concerned about an ongoing congressional ethics inquiry related to Grayson's alleged operation of a hedge fund and law firm. Investigators earlier this month found there was “substantial reason to believe” that Grayson improperly operated the hedge fund while in office, allowed his name to used by firms connected to the hedge fund and received compensation for legal services performed by others in connection with a matter in which the government had an interest.
Murphy said those allegations “go right to the core of what voters are mad at.” He isn't the only one in the Democratic party who feels that way.
“Alan Grayson is under ethics investigation, accused of running a Cayman Islands hedge fund from his congressional office to line his own pockets,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail April 15. “His actions disqualify him from public service.”
President Barack Obama, Reid and Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) are among the high-profile Democrats who have endorsed Murphy in the race.
Grayson's camp says he set up a Cayman Islands hedge fund, but hasn't put any money into it. They also argue that he didn't run afoul of ethics rules because the he didn't owe a fiduciary duty to the fund.
The House Ethics Committee has indicated that it will proceed slowly in considering the Office of Congressional Ethics's findings. Grayson's lawyer has previously dismissed the investigation as politically motivated.
“The only criteria that they have for a candidate is obedience,” Grayson said of party leaders' support for Murphy. “I’m not going to hand them my voting card.”
Although Grayson might not be getting an invitation to rub elbows with the Senate Democratic brass anytime soon, he is getting some decent support from Florida voters.
One-third (33 percent) of Democratic primary voters said they prefer Grayson in a March Public Policy Polling survey, compared with 22 percent for Murphy. But when compared with the top three Republican candidates—Reps. David Jolly and Ron DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera—Murphy led his rivals by 7 percentage points, compared with a two percentage point lead for Grayson.
“It's ridiculous to say there's a major electability issues when I'm beating them as well as he would,” Grayson said. “The idea that you elect a party-switching right-winger and that it will somehow win you Republican votes is ridiculous.”
Other polls conducted last month show Murphy leading Grayson in the primary. That includes a March 17 St. Leo University survey in which 20 percent of voters favored Murphy and 17 percent backed Grayson.
Grayson has taken exception with Murphy's vote in favor of a DeSantis-sponsored bill to freeze federal workers pay in 2013 (32 DLR A-15, 2/15/13).
He's also given Murphy some flak for his affiliation with the Republican Party as a younger voter. Murphy said he became a Democrat while in college over opposition to the war in Iraq, and noted that he supports a wide range of left-leaning policies, including raising the minimum wage and protecting workers' right to organize.
The Florida race is one of 24 nationwide for seats currently held by Republicans. Nearly half (45 percent) of Democratic primary voters said in the March PPP poll that they currently have “no preference” between Grayson and Murphy.
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