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February 15th, 2012 HEIDI GROOVER | Elections
 

Fritz’s Labor Pains

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she is the champion of labor unions. So why have they abandoned her?

news1_amandafritz_3815City Commissioner Amanda Fritz - IMAGE: Natalie Behring
A union strike, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says, defined her commitment to public service long before she ran for office.

She recalls walking picket lines when her nurses’ union struck Oregon Health & Science University in 2001 for better wages and safer working conditions. Fritz tells the story at almost every campaign stop as she faces a difficult fight to win re-election.

On Jan. 27, she attended a candidates’ forum sponsored in part by Occupy Portland. The audience members were told if they got bored by a speaker, they should give a wrap-it-up hand motion. 

Fritz was only a minute into her nurses’ strike story when someone gave her the sign.

“No,” Fritz told him sharply. “You can’t do that to me right now. This is my story. I’ve got to tell my story. It’s why I’m on the Council.”

Even though her identity as a union member remains key to her message, labor has largely abandoned Fritz.

Firefighters, police and other city workers this year have endorsed Fritz’s main challenger, state Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Southwest Portland). That means unions are opening their checkbooks—and unleashing their members as volunteers—against Fritz.

Nolan has already taken a $20,000 donation from the firefighters’ union, the biggest donation in the race so far.

Labor leaders say Fritz hasn’t been there for them on key issues, from wages and benefits to city services critical to doing their jobs.

That’s left many union members—some still angry about the city’s change in overtime rules—eager to see her off the Council.

“I don’t want to say they felt betrayed,” says Joe Baessler, political coordinator for Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “But for a person who is, ‘I’m labor, I love labor, I love working people,’ to push the idea of rolling back benefits for our folks was worse than if someone who wasn’t a friend of labor had done it.”

Fritz says some unions have mischaracterized her record. “I was on strike for 56 days for protecting the work week and workers’ rights,” she says of her days as an OHSU nurse. “I was disappointed that apparently people don’t know who I am, if they suppose I was attacking them.”

In her three years in City Hall, Fritz remains an outsider when it comes to many big issues facing the city. She’s struggled to show results on most of her initiatives and has often been on the losing end of Council votes. But Fritz says she has not lost touch with voters—she probably attends more community events than anyone else on the Council—and refuses to change her principles, despite pressure to go along.

Fritz has also imposed campaign contribution limits on herself. She will take money only from individuals, and no more than $50 a year from any one person. Her self-imposed controls hark back to 2008, when she won election using the city’s public campaign finance system. (Voters killed the program in 2010.)

Had she won over unions this time, Fritz says, she still wouldn’t have taken their PAC money. But she could have cut off what promises to be a major cash supply for Nolan.

Nolan’s challenge to Fritz has left some union leaders uneasy about choosing between the two.

“We have great respect for both,” says Susan King, executive director of the Oregon Nurses Association, “and wish they weren’t running against each other.”

The nurses’ union, which has contributed to Nolan’s legislative campaigns in the past, endorsed Fritz this year because of their longstanding connection.

But other unions have not hesitated to take a stand against re-electing Fritz. 

Firefighters’ union president Jim Forquer says his members think Fritz has not stood up for them on a range of items, especially in her oversight of the Bureau of Emergency Communications.

The No. 1 issue: Fritz’s handling of the troublesome new 911 system, the $14 million VCAD, installed last spring.

Police, firefighters and other emergency workers say the system is full of bugs: Officers were sent to wrong addresses, and the command center couldn’t keep track of where they were. Other local governments (the county and other cities contribute to the 911 system run by the city) were stuck paying for maintenance on an expensive system that didn’t work right.

“I don’t think Commissioner Fritz grasped the seriousness of those issues,” Forquer says.

Fritz says she stands by the 911 changes, which she says replaced an outdated system that was far worse.

“There was no question in my mind to go ahead with buying the new system,” Fritz says. “I’m really proud of it.”

Notably, the 911 mess started with the firefighters’ closest friend on the City Council, City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who pushed through a $2 million, no-bid contract with the consultant helping guide the 911 planning. Fritz inherited the job of implementing the system and is now taking the heat.

Fritz isn’t surprised she has lost the support of firefighters and police, whose union, the Portland Police Association, is also backing Nolan. (Daryl Turner, president of the Portland police union, declined to discuss the endorsement.)

Fritz says she has opposed firefighters over staffing and budgets, and voted against the 2010 bond measure for new fire equipment. She says she has also been outspoken about police discipline cases, demanding more accountability from officers.

“I say what I believe is right,” Fritz says, “and if the voters decide that’s not what they want, then that’s what they decide.”

The loss of one endorsement, Fritz says, did surprise her: AFSCME Local 189.

“That was a heartbreaker,” she says.

The union represents 950 city workers. AFSCME and other public employee unions are still smarting over the city’s efforts to curb overtime pay. 

The city pushed to end overtime for workers who had not yet put in 40 hours in a week. AFSCME representative Rob Wheaton says this rule would have ended overtime for workers who go beyond eight hours in a day.

“There is a perception that Amanda was behind the eight-hour-workday attack, but we do not know what was said in executive session,” Wheaton wrote in an email to WW. “The membership was upset at City Council as a whole for this, and she is just the first incumbent that is asking for our endorsement.”

Fritz says that isn’t true and blames the city’s human-resources department for proposing those terms. She says she only wanted what the city finally got: to stop workers who called in sick during the week from volunteering for overtime during the weekend. Wheaton says Fritz wanted to go even further in restricting overtime.

AFSCME has yet to donate to Nolan, but Wheaton says the money will follow—and so will union members making phone calls and knocking on doors. “When we endorse, we intend to put as much into it as we can,” he says. 

Nolan says she isn’t surprised that she’s winning union support. Nolan says she’s heard complaints that Fritz isn’t good at compromise or finding agreement, and points to her legislative record as proof she’ll do a better job.

“I think the distinction is pretty clear,” she says. “I have been an advocate for middle-class families and working folks and specifically unions for 30 years.”

Nolan—who is barred from raising money during the February legislative session—is sitting on a cash balance of $171,502—most of that raised since she announced for City Council last July.

Fritz, meanwhile, has $41,064 (after loaning herself $50,000) and few prospects of raising much more.

Janice Thompson, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Oregon, says Fritz has to be ready to mobilize her supporters to fight back.

“Any candidate, regardless of why they don’t have money, had better be positioned to run a people-powered campaign,” she says.

Thompson says a fundraising strategy like Fritz’s can work when the opponent is unknown, or when the disparity in fundraising hurts the richer candidate.

That happened in 2004, when former Police Chief Tom Potter ran against then-Commissioner Jim Francesconi for mayor and limited donations to $25. Potter was well-known and popular, Thompson says, and Francesconi’s aggressive fundraising turned off voters.

Fritz says she’s confident she’s going to win—and that she wouldn’t run her campaign any other way.

“I don’t want anybody to have to worry or wonder, ‘Is she voting that way because she got a boatload of money from X, Y person or corporation or union?’” she says. “It is really hard, though.”

 
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