Despite racial-bias claims, labor unions back Schor

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With a sizable cash-on-hand lead, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is already lining up organized labor endorsements that have traditionally helped to influence the outcome of local elections.

Those include endorsements from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 951, Laborers Local 499, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 665 and 352, and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333.

Still unannounced: The UAW and unions representing the city’s Police and Fire departments.

With endorsements also come donations and door knockers. Union endorsements can also result in cash flowing through political action committees. Last year, four unions donated $25,000 to Schor’s campaign coffers, according to Ingham County campaign finance records.

As the community struggled with a pandemic and racial injustice last year, Schor received $6,500 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $1,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers, $8,500 from the Carpenters and Millwrights and $10,000 from the Plumbers and Pipefitters. These are direct contributions to his mayoral campaign account and do not account for independent expenditures which may have been paid out in support of Schor.

Schor had about $180,000 left on Dec. 31. Kathie Dunbar, an at-large Councilwoman also running for mayor, had $75 cash on hand. Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley — who is also running for mayor — tallied about $1,200 left in her campaign accounts on Dec. 31.

Both women can transition their Council campaign accounts to mayoral campaign accounts, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. They only need to change their campaign committee statement of organization because both offices represent the exact same number of residents.

With three key unions left to endorse in the mayoral race, Spitzley said she has already sought meetings and vetting for their endorsements. She expressed disappointment that the traditional interviewing and vetting process used by unions in the past had not been followed this time.

Dunbar said the union endorsements for Schor are not an obstacle to her campaign’s success. She said unions and PACs only donate to Schor in exchange for a “benefit” that she doesn’t plan to see maintained if elected. She said she’ll raise cash from residents and business owners, noting she won her first council race with $4,000 and “two pairs of Birkenstocks.”

Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, mostly follows state campaign finance issues but said labor unions play a “serious role” in Michigan politics.

“Their support in feet or boots on the ground is likely more important than the cash,” he added.

But in a campaign season overshadowed by racial equity concerns, the traditional strength of union support may not translate into an election win. Schor has been criticized for his handling of protests against police brutality last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. His administration has also been hit with multiple lawsuits that allege racial discrimination. Those events also led the Lansing NAACP branch to issue a statement denouncing the mayor. 

“We demand accountability now — not more reports and recommendations,” the NAACP wrote.

Underlying racial tension could flip expectations in local politics, said Steve Japinga, a vice president at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. He said those simmering frustrations and demands for racial equity are reshaping the political landscape in as yet unknown ways.

The chamber — unlike several local unions — is continuing with its traditional interview and vetting process for candidates for city offices. Interviews are set for next month. Endorsements will likely be announced before absentee ballots begin hitting mailboxes shortly after June 24.

Japinga said the drive for racial equity is forcing change both at the chamber and within its political action committee. The pace of that change will be slow because bylaws limit appointments and term limits, but the group is already recruiting more diversity for committees to ensure a focus on racial equity as the business organization charges forward in Lansing.

Schor, in the meantime, has released a platform that includes bolstering racial equity and addressing diversity and inclusion concerns in the city. He also dedicated at least $300,000 in his latest budget proposal that will mostly support ongoing training efforts for city employees.

“I will be talking about my accomplishments and my vision for the next five years,” Schor said.

Dan Minton, business manager for the Laborers Local 499, said his union supported Schor in 2017. The repeat endorsement is mostly because Schor is “good for development,” he said.

Minton said that racial equity was “absolutely” a labor issue, but there were no concerns from his estimated 1,400 members about the current allegations against Schor.

Spitzley was concerned by that response. Regardless of the outcome of the discrimination lawsuits against the city, she said that the fact that people can feel left out and discriminated against in Lansing requires attention. She added: “You can’t just dismiss that out of hand.”

Dunbar called Schor’s performance related to racial issues “utterly dismal.” She predicts the majority of labor cash will flow into political C4 organizations — political groups ostensibly for voter education — to “smear” Schor’s opponents and “try to posit him as the least worst option.

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