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Union Attacks Hurting Republicans With Cops, Firefighters

Cops and firefighters have traditionally been up-for-grabs or even lean Republican constituencies in America over the past 30 years or so. Bill Clinton gained a lot of goodwill with the COPS program, but Republicans have held their own. But a series of GOP-led anti-union bills in the states, some of which affect public safety personnel in particular, have soured them toward Republicans in a way that could have lasting effects.

It’s a political shift that could have significant repercussions, and not just because these right-leaning union members vote for Republicans in sizable numbers. Angry cops and firefighters make for bad PR — especially after Republicans under President George W. Bush aligned themselves so successfully with the heroes of Sept. 11 in the years since then.

Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said his members are “shocked” by the turn of events.

“Who are these evil teachers who teach your children, these evil policemen who protect them, these evil firemen who pull them from burning buildings? When did we all become evil?” said Canterbury, whose union endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008.

You could have seen this coming a mile away. The 2005 special election in California is something of a harbinger for all of this. Arnold Schwarzenegger went directly after labor unions in the state. One of the major ballot measures was a “paycheck protection” initiative, which would have forced unions to get permission from members to engage in any political activity (I’m sure corporations will seek that permission from shareholders any day now). The ads from labor in that campaign all featured regular people – teachers, nurses, and especially police and firefighters – giving direct testimony on how Arnold’s ballot measures would affect them personally. In November, the initatives all went down in a big way.

Now we’re seeing police and firefighters run screaming from the GOP in these other states. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker tried to split them from the coalition by exempting them, but it didn’t work; public safety officials showed solidarity with their fellow public employees in the protests. In Ohio, police and fire are affected by the bill, and Republicans they supported are pushing it:

Most police officers didn’t believe a restrictive collective-bargaining bill would affect them even though Kasich had been captured in a You Tube video talking about it, said Ohio FOP President Jay McDonald.

When the legislation was introduced in February, not only did it include them, its chief sponsor was Republican state Sen. Shannon Jones — who was endorsed by the FOP.

“She neglected to tell us it was her plan to dismantle collective bargaining,” McDonald said ruefully. “In just a few, short months, we have had a dramatic transformation of the feelings of my membership.”

Some police officers are talking about running in Republican primaries, others are switching party labels, and all of them are now pressuring state lawmakers to kill the bill or gut it through the amendment process, said Gary Wolske, vice president of police union.

More on the exodus from the GOP by public safety officers here. There’s a lot of buyer’s remorse out there.

The latest polling shows a surge of support for Democrats within union households – and because this was such a high-profile issue, I don’t think that’s likely to turn around for a while. As Chris Bowers notes, around 12% of all Republican votes in 2010 came from union households. Could they even get a quarter of those votes today?

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David Dayen

David Dayen