Pity the lobbyists for the Service Employees International Union when they make their rounds of the statehouse next January. After SEIU spent more than $200,000--an immense sum in a statehouse race--in a failed hardball bid to take out 32-year incumbent Helen Sommers, Democratic chair of the House Appropriations committee, Olympia Democrats are livid at the union. Some vow their doors will remain firmly shut when the union comes knocking next session.

As the legislature gathered this week for committee work, the close race--on Monday, union-backed lefty challenger Alice Woldt finally conceded defeat--was the talk of the Democratic caucus, with several legislators saying the union had severely damaged its own credibility and poisoned long-standing relationships with key Democrats.

"I don't think the issue is that they challenged her, it was how they did it," says Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-33). Upthegrove recalls joining the union in its 2003 budget protests outside the office of former Senate budget chair Dino Rossi. Now he decries what he calls the union's "sleazy, dishonest campaign tactics against one of the most respected members of the legislature."

In mailings, phone banks, cable ads, and a www.moveonhelen.org website, the union portrayed Sommers as a tool of corporate interests and insufficiently liberal on labor, the environment, and other issues important to the hippie-lefty 36th district, which includes Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard. SEIU was particularly incensed that Sommers negotiated a budget deal with Republicans that repudiated a $2.07 an hour raise for home-health-care workers.

Sommers' defenders, however, argued that Sommers did the best she could for the union given Governor Gary Locke's alliance with statehouse Republicans in support of a no-new-taxes budget that closed a $2.6 billion deficit. Despite slashed spending in other areas, home-health-care workers received a 75-cent raise in 2003 and a further 50 cents in 2004.

Legislators say that they remain supportive of the union's issues, but will give a cold shoulder to the union itself. "You won't see me marching with them and wearing a purple [SEIU] shirt next year," Upthegrove says.

Capitol Hill Rep. Ed Murray (D-43) was also openly critical of SEIU leaders. "They have fractured their relationship with many of us who tried to work with them," he says. "What they said [about Sommers] were lies." While Murray says he will continue to meet with constituents who are SEIU members, he is "not particularly interested in working with leadership."

Sommers herself described the union effort against her as "vicious" and "hugely negative." The union's leadership, she contended, "has been discredited." While Sommers and other Dems stress they have no desire to harm rank-and-file union members by retaliating against SEIU, the political culture of Olympia is based on relationships, and it is likely that the union will have a more difficult time getting a hearing when its issues are translated into legislation.

But if Sommers is still smarting from the campaign, so is the union. "SEIU is not a lapdog for the Democratic Party," union spokesman Adam Glickman says. And he spins Woldt's near-victory against an entrenched incumbent as a monument to SEIU's political muscle. "Democrats continue to line up to seek our endorsement and our support," he points out.

Despite the flap over Sommers, SEIU remains a major player in Democratic politics. The union has pumped some $800,000 into the gubernatorial race backing Christine Gregoire, and backs vulnerable Dems in swing districts. Too strong of a backlash in Olympia could run the risk of turning off the union's spigots.

The biggest loser in the contretemps may be neither the union nor the party. House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43), close to both SEIU and Woldt, has angered many Democrats who believe he could have intervened to halt the anti-Sommers effort.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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