Ohio2006 Blog

News, analysis, and comments on Ohio elections.

Thursday, March 30

Cong. OH-13th: Sawyer (D) vs. Sutton (D) a Test of Union Strength?

Anna Landmark, campaign manager for 13th Congressional District candidate Betty Sutton (D-Chardon), pictured, has forwarded the text of an interesting item from the National Journal's House Race Hotline (subscription required), which portrays the struggle between former Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Akron) and Sutton (putting aside the other six Democrats in the primary) as a test case for the political clout of labor unions in an area traditionally considered a labor stronghold:

"[N]early 40 percent of households district-wide are unionized. Lorain County, the district's second-most populous county, is the area's blue-collar base and its economy still relies on auto manufacturing. But the district's population center of Akron has evolved. The city's main commodity was once rubber, represented by its sprawling Goodyear factory. Now many of the old tire factories are high-tech centers for polymer research, and surrounding Summit County has a growing white-collar workforce. Despite the economic changes, constituents here still take a protectionist mentality and view free-trade agreements unfavorably. After all, this is the district where [incumbent Rep. Sherrod] Brown compiled one of the strongest pro-labor records in the House. ..."
After briefly describing other candidates, the story continues:

"[T]he real fight driving labor activists pits [Sawyer against Sutton]. Sawyer served as mayor of Akron in the 1980s and then represented the city in Congress for more than a decade. 'Everyone there over the age of 35 or 40 remembers him well and hasn't forgotten him,' said Sawyer's adviser Jerry Austin, who credits him for turning around the city's economy. But Sawyer is getting a cold shoulder from labor because of his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Cleveland AFL-CIO Executive Secretary John Ryan called 'a big problem.' Despite having a strong overall pro-labor record, Ryan said the NAFTA vote would prevent him from receiving any support. 'It's like saying he was a good son, except for killing his mother,' he said. ...

"Sutton's entry in the race drew significant attention. Early on, EMILY's List identified her as one of their top candidates, giving her access to a network of donors. She represented labor clients as an attorney and voted consistently with their interests as a state legislator in the 1990s. Because of her activism, the lion's share of unions in the district endorsed her early on. Even with labor's love, though, few constituents are familiar with Sutton or her record. Her supporters argue that money and organization can boost her familiarity quickly. But with only a month left until the primary, there's a limited amount of time for a full-fledged get-out-the vote operation. ...

"[Sawyer's] ultimate Achilles heel -- organization -- is Sutton's strength. Sawyer has raised very little money, and has no campaign office, no paid campaign staff and no Web site. He's leading in polls based on name identification and positive memories. Sutton, meanwhile, will have an army of activists going door-to-door for her."
And here's the money quote as far as Sutton's campaign is concerned:

"Sawyer's campaign is publicly banking on [the labor unions'] irrelevance. 'The average person is not as passionate about NAFTA as the union leaders. They have no idea what the average voter is thinking,' said [Sawyer's adviser Jerry] Austin."
That statement is the basis for a scorching press release from Sutton's campaign, headlined "Statement from Betty Sutton Responding to Tom Sawyer's Disparagement of Workers in Ohio":

"Tom Sawyer's dismissal of the importance of workers and labor once again demonstrates why Ohio's workers don't trust him to protect their interests and represent them in Congress. His attempts to explain away his votes against workers as a simple mistake do not solve the problem and don't even begin to address the impact it had on Ohio's workers. NAFTA decimated Ohio's economy and dismantled people's lives ... . Workers in Ohio don't deserve Tom Sawyer's disrespect and insulting rationalizations. ...

"Tom Sawyer turned his back on Ohio's workers. I am the only candidate in this race who has consistently demonstrated the integrity and backbone to stand up for workers and fight for the issues that average people worry about every day. ..."
I can't fault Sutton for attempting to cut front-runner Sawyer's lead any way she can. I imagine it's very frustrating to be running an all-out campaign and yet still trail an adversary who appears to be making little effort. However, the premise of Sutton's attack seems a little shaky. Sawyer isn't disparaging workers or dismissing the importance of labor unions in fighting for workers' rights, he's just saying that he doesn't think NAFTA weighs as heavily on voters' minds as it does on union leaders. He may be wrong (the scathing attitude toward Sawyer of the excellent blog Ohio 13 is steeped in deep personal anger about the effects of NAFTA), but I think that's different from insulting workers and disparaging labor in general. In any event, as to the article's thesis, it isn't really a two-person race, the pull of other candidates on voters' interests for other reasons can't be discounted, and I think it's a little too simplistic to reduce the primary contest to a measure of labor's clout.


At 2:57 PM, Blogger Ohio 13 said...

you really must stop your insightful analysis of the 13th race... it's making us look bad! In all seriousness, excellent piece.


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