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By Chris Opfer
Oct. 11 — Labor unions are spending some of their campaign cash on an unlikely ally as the election season heads into the final stretch: a New Jersey Republican running against a former Obama administration adviser.
Labor groups have chipped in about $316,000 toward Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s re-election campaign, more than unions have contributed to all but one other congressional candidate of either party this cycle. That’s also six times more than Democratic challenger Dave Cole has received in contributions from all sources in his uphill battle for LoBiondo’s seat.
The figures, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and based on disclosures through the second quarter of this year, don’t include outside spending by unions or dark money funneled through Super PACs. The contributions to the 11-term Republican come from some of the same labor organizations that are pushing to secure Democratic control of the Senate and to send Hillary Clinton to the White House.
“We’ve supported Frank LoBiondo for 20 years, and he’s supported us,” UNITE HERE Local 54 President Bob McDevitt told Bloomberg BNA. The union represents casino workers in Atlantic City, part of LoBiondo’s district. “We don’t discard political allies just because there’s someone else running from the Democratic party,” McDevitt added.
Labor groups told Bloomberg BNA that they’re backing LoBiondo based on their history with the candidate, not necessarily because he’s more aligned with them on the issues than Cole. They also noted that the South Jersey lawmaker has used his role as chair of a transportation subcommittee to fight against foreign airlines accused of trying to undercut U.S. air carriers by skirting labor laws.
LoBiondo has worked to forge a reputation as a moderate over two decades in Congress. That includes by urging House Republican leadership to take up a bill to extend emergency unemployment benefits in the aftermath of the recent recession and opposing GOP-backed efforts to undo National Labor Relations Board moves to enhance collective bargaining rights.
Those positions have helped earn LoBiondo the relatively rare distinction of being endorsed by both the New Jersey AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It has also won him the support of some unions that largely lean to the left, like UNITE HERE and the Communication Workers of America.
“That district is unique in that, for all of LoBiondo’s tenure, Local 54 members and their families probably make up the plurality of the district,” Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, told Bloomberg BNA. “So, it would make perfect political sense that he would align himself with them.”
The CWA and UNITE HERE’s South Jersey local affiliate endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) before shifting to support Clinton after she secured the Democratic nomination. Shane Larson, the CWA’s legislative affairs director, told Bloomberg BNA the union’s “major focus” is to help Democrats retake control of the Senate.
Larson, UNITE HERE’s McDevitt and Chris Sloan, the legislative director for the Union of Painters and Allied Trades, all cited LoBiondo’s history of standing on picket lines with workers and resisting Republican moves to peel back some regulatory protections for workers. “He’s been consistently in support of workers’ rights to collectively bargain and has been with us on the trade sites consistently over the years,” Larson said.
Harrison said many building trades unions in New Jersey and elsewhere tend to favor Republicans. Meanwhile, LoBiondo’s work to enforce labor protections in the “open skies” agreement between the U.S. and the European Union has landed him support from aviation and related worker groups.
LoBiondo campaign spokesman Jason Galanes declined Bloomberg BNA's request for an interview with the candidate.
Still, LoBiondo isn’t likely to be accused of being in the bag for big labor anytime soon. He recently voted in favor of legislation (H.R. 6094) to delay the Labor Department’s new overtime rule and has previously supported a measure (H.R. 427) to slow down the regulatory process.
“There’s a game they play to make sure those PAC checks come in,” Cole told Bloomberg BNA, referring to the LoBiondo campaign. “He knows how to keep the management happy as well as how to appeal to the workers.”
Cole says his message to unions is that he’s the stronger candidate on issues like raising the minimum wage and closing the pay gap between men and women workers. He also said groups should consider whether they want to contribute to someone who in turn is backing House colleagues whose positions are at odds with organized labor.
“I understand that the relationships have been formed over time, but I think we all need to take a second look at those relationships,” Cole said. The software engineer was a senior technology adviser in the White House for two years during the Obama administration.
The AFL-CIO gives LoBiondo a 54 percent lifetime voting score on legislation the union has deemed crucial to unions. That is third-highest among current Republicans—behind only Reps. Chris Smith (N.J.) and Dan Donovan (N.Y.)—but it’s well below the lifetime scores of every Democrat serving in the House.
Cole has been trying to tie LoBiondo to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, particularly as video footage recently surfaced of Trump making lewd comments about women. The blowback from that footage has forced some GOP candidates down the ballots to try to keep their distance from the New York businessman.
LoBiondo accepted campaign contributions from Trump before Trump considered running for office and while he was operating casinos in Atlantic City. UNITE HERE members were among the some 2,800 workers recently laid off when the Trump Taj Mahal, which the Republican nominee opened in 1990 and later sold during bankruptcy proceedings, closed its doors Oct. 10.
LoBiondo announced Oct. 8 that he will not vote for Trump or Clinton.
Still, Cole said the long-standing ties between LoBiondo and the local unions have made it difficult to get labor groups to even hear him out. McDevitt explained that a certain amount of loyalty to the candidate already serving in Congress should be expected.
“For incumbents who have been supportive, we don’t routinely have them sing for their supper like they’ve never supported us before,” McDevitt said. “We don’t do that to Democrats either.”
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