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Blue vs. Blue Does Not Equal Red

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

They are all Democrats, blue and blue. But like Republicans, they have opposing visions duking it out in the primaries.

One side sees urgency in reforming public-employee benefits now eating state and local budgets alive. This group includes Democratic governors Jerry Brown in California, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Pat Quinn in Illinois.

Other candidates prefer to skirt the crisis -- figuring they'll be in the next office by the time the extravagant promises explode in the taxpayers' faces. They count on public-employee unions sending out the troops on primary day.

And the reform-minded voters? Some are liberals anguished over public services being slashed to pay for often-lavish benefits. Some are state and city workers themselves who fear deeper cuts in benefits if a sustainable balance is not reached.

Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo has reaped national attention -- and blowback by public-employee unions -- for the depth of the reforms she championed in the most Democratic of states. She has actually gone further in making meaningful change than some Republicans elsewhere, for whom confronting public-employee unions comes more naturally.

Raimondo is now running for governor. Her first hurdle, the Democratic primary, may be the highest.

As I've said over and over, Raimondo tells me, "if you want your vote to count, you can't wait until November. You have to show up (for the primary), in our case Sept. 9."

How does Raimondo differ from a Republican like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, famous for pounding on public-employee unions? I have to ask her.

I'm not blaming teachers and state employees for the unaffordable pensions, she responds. "You did nothing wrong."

The daughter of a Bulova watch factory worker who eventually founded an investment company, Raimondo says she abhors union-bashing. The unions were only doing their jobs, she often says. It was the politicians who didn't negotiate properly -- who gave away the store.

I always used to call myself the anti-Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey) or the anti-Scott Walker, she says. Their "message was fundamentally 'us vs. them.'"

And she holds Walker's pension shake-up in contempt because he exempted police in a kind of divide-and-conquer strategy. "That was pure politics," she says.

Unlike John Kasich, Ohio's Republican governor, Raimondo supports the right of public-employee unions to negotiate contracts.

Raimondo's argument to these workers is that they would get a better deal under reform than they would if all hell broke loose.

All hell broke loose in Detroit, where a bankruptcy voided the union contracts. That led city workers and retirees to vote painfully -- but wisely -- for controlled cuts in their benefits.

Rhode Islanders have their own example in Central Falls. When that city went bankrupt, pensions were cut in half. So the possible bad outcomes of not reforming pensions, Raimondo says, are "not theoretical."

Raimondo has been endorsed by most private-sector unions. Construction workers, in particular, blame the state's political and economic mess -- Rhode Island has the nation's highest unemployment rate -- for the lack of jobs.

And some public workers support Raimondo quietly. They can't say these things at a union meeting, she says teachers have told her, but see her readjustments as helping secure their retirements.

Nonetheless, firefighters continue to protest noisily outside her public fundraisers. "And they just yell at you," Raimondo sighs. "'Don't take away my pension.'"

Rhode Island's open-primary rules could help Raimondo. They let unaffiliated voters, more than 60 percent of the electorate, simply show up and vote in a Democratic primary.

But will they? Will progressives and independents desirous of reform get off their big rear ends Sept. 9? Foes of reform have the date circled, for certain.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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