NY-23: Special Election Divides the House of Labor

Lindsay Beyerstein

Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate in New York's 23rd Congressional District, has attracted support from labor organizations.

Organized labor is split over the special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. The race presents an unusual and tough choice between a pro-labor Republican and a conservative Democratic candidate who isn’t even a registered Democrat.

The support of organized labor is expected to be crucial in this upstate New York election. Union backing made the difference earlier this year when Democrat Scott Murphy narrowly edged out Republican Jim Tedisco in the congressional race to replace former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

The Republican candidate in the 23rd District, State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, supports a key item on labor’s wish list, the Employee Free Choice Act—albeit a neutered version that that does not include card check.

Her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, has said he would support EFCA as written, presumably implying that he supports EFCA with card check.

Last week, Scozzafava won the endorsement of the Jefferson-Lewis-St. Lawrence County Central Labor Council. (Her husband, UAW member Ron McDougal, is the president of the council, but he recused himself for the endorsement vote.) Scozzafava also garnered the endorsement of the political arm of the United Auto Workers and the nod from the Plattsburgh Saranac Building Trades Council.

Bill Owens garnered the endorsement of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Officials said they were supporting Owens because they liked his plan to create jobs by luring businesses over the border from Canada. Evidently, 1199 SEIU chose to overlook the fact that Owens doesn’t support a public option for healthcare reform. 

The 23rd is one of the most Republican districts in the northeast, and hasn’t been represented by a Democrat since 1871. The former holder of the seat, John McHugh, resigned last month to become Secretary of the Army. McHugh carried the district with over 65% of the vote in 2008. The candidates were selected by local party chairs instead of through primary elections.

The strategic calculus is complicated. The Democrats have a big majority in the House, but are struggling to pass progressive legislation because of opposition from conservatives within their own party (e.g., the struggle to get a health reform bill past the Blue Dogs on the Senate Finance Committee.)

Scozzafava would caucus with the Republicans, but she’s promising to buck her party on EFCA, a big ticket issue for organized labor.

Maybe she would, having built up some trust with the unions during her time as a state assemblywoman. On the campaign trail, Owens says he supports EFCA, but he has never held elected office and his stated position seems at odds with his generally conservative/​corporatist political philosophy.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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