Unions Key as Pennsylvania Special Election Nears
The race to fill southwestern Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional seat ends March 13 and tens of thousands of union members will play an outsize role in determining the winner.
Union households make up nearly a quarter of the district’s voting population where the IBEW alone has nearly 5,000 members.
“In special elections, turnout is always low and it all comes down to who gets their people to the polls,” said IBEW Political Director Austin Keyser. “Organized labor has a lot of power and even more at stake.”
The election pits Conor Lamb, a political newcomer and Marine Corps veteran who says he is proud of the state AFL-CIO’s endorsement against state Rep. Rick Saccone, one of the leaders of the state’s small, vocal group of right-to-work supporters.
“Lamb is good, young, aggressive and articulate. He will be a leader that will carry an agenda for working families,” said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder. “Saccone wouldn’t even fill out our candidate questionnaire. His voting record earned him a score of zero on our rating of votes important to working families. He isn’t just your typical anti-worker politician – he’s worse.”
The special election was called after it was revealed that former Rep. Tim Murphy, a pro-life Republican, pressured his mistress to have an abortion. The eight-term congressman resigned last October.
Whoever wins the race will face another election in the fall when Murphy’s term would have ended and his opponent will be chosen in a primary May 15.
Murphy was a Republican, but, on labor issues, he bucked his party.
“We lost a real gem in Murphy,” said Pittsburgh Local 29 member Mike Sowko, a former longtime member of the local’s executive board. “He was good with labor. He had a nice balance on issues.”
Murphy was a reliable supporter of organized labor, prevailing wage laws, and collective bargaining rights. He even won the endorsement of Local 29 and the state AFL-CIO in his last election.
“Davis-Bacon is the Building and Construction Trades bread and butter, and Murphy supported it,” Snyder said.
Saccone, meanwhile, co-sponsored a bill that quadrupled the minimum threshold for prevailing wage projects from $25,000 to $100,000, voted to outlaw automatic dues deductions for state workers, voted for right-to-work laws and picked up the endorsement of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Work Committee in 2014.
“He even voted against including made in America amendments in infrastructure bills – more than once,” said Third District International Representative Kris Anderson, the IBEW’s political coordinator in Pennsylvania.
Lamb comes from a well-known political family in western Pennsylvania. His grandfather, Thomas F. Lamb, served as the Democratic Majority Leader in the Pennsylvania State Senate from 1970–1974, and his uncle, Michael Lamb, is the current Controller of the City of Pittsburgh.
“Lamb is a good name up here,” said Pittsburgh Local 29 Vice President Jim DePoe. “They have been 100 percent pro-labor through the years. So is he. It’s the culture he was raised in.”
Lamb’s support for unions is a regular feature of his speeches and features prominently on his campaign website.
“Union members in our district can count on me to be the most effective ally they have in fighting to protect their rights, support prevailing wages and project labor agreements, and defeat the ideological extremists who want to put unions out of existence,” he wrote.
Turning a Red District Purple
Lamb really shouldn’t even have a chance.
Although there are 70,000 more registered Democrats in the district than Republicans, the district has trended increasingly Republican since the mid-1990s; most of the district's state legislators are Republicans.
Like most of Pennsylvania, the 18th was heavily gerrymandered after the 2010 census. Former industrial cities were drawn out of the district and replaced by the rural foothills along the border of West Virginia. The more progressive suburbs near Pittsburgh were split up. In some places, opposite sides of the same street were put in different districts to dilute Democratic voters.
It was supposed to be a fortress Democrats couldn’t win and it has been working. Donald Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016.
But Saccone’s anti-labor record seems to be alienating many of the district’s Trump-voting Democrats. In a recent poll, Saccone and Lamb were in a statistical dead heat.
“This should be an easy Republican seat but it is a dead heat,” DePoe said. “You want to know how scared they are, look at how much money from outside the district is pouring in.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent $1.5 million on TV ads at the end of January. Two weeks earlier, the CLF opened two campaign offices in the district. Two more Super PACs have bought ads, both supported by Chicago billionaire Joe Ricketts, who recently shuttered five online news outlets he owned after they voted to organize.
Lamb has refused corporate and PAC money and criticizes Saccone for relying heavily on money from Ricketts, the owner Pittsburgh Pirates’ rival Chicago Cubs.
The ads Saccone is running have also been controversial. Despite Lamb never having met Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and his saying he would not vote for her for Speaker of the House, Saccone edited Lamb into pictures with Pelosi. His TV spots also mock Lamb’s name.
“We can do better than that,” Snyder said. “We have to remember why we are here. Why is there a special election? Tim Murphy resigned amid a scandalous affair. Now Saccone is making fun of Lamb’s name? Hopefully, this district has grown tired of politicians who behave in ways we would not accept from our kids.”
Getting Out the Vote
Snyder says the state AFL-CIO is putting everything they can into the race, but there are real challenges.
“We want to visit every union household before Election Day, but it isn’t the most walkable district. And the weather will be a factor,” he said. “On Election Day it could be 50 degrees or there could be two feet of snow.”
The focus, he said, is on educating membership.
“If there are any lessons we should learn from the debacle of 2016, it is that you cannot assume your members have all the facts. We don’t assume they know Saccone is bad and Lamb is good,” he said. “We are asking them to compare candidates and educating where we can and then let them draw the conclusion.”
Snyder said that the best hope is a positive message about the economic possibilities of a region that has been falling behind for nearly a century. Shale gas is transforming the region. Two natural gas processing plants have broken ground in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia border region and a half dozen more are planned.
“Within five years this could be the energy capital of America – as big as Houston,” Snyder said. “There is $100-150 billion worth of investment in a 50-mile radius of this district, but I want those to be local jobs, good jobs. We have such great opportunities. We need leaders who can take advantage of them.”