Dan Morain

Opinion: Defining what’s acceptable for Democrats

Rep. Ami Bera walks the district in search of votes for the Nov. 4 election along with Representative Jerry McNerney during canvass kick off, Saturday, October 18, 2014.
Rep. Ami Bera walks the district in search of votes for the Nov. 4 election along with Representative Jerry McNerney during canvass kick off, Saturday, October 18, 2014. lsterling@sacbee.com

The California Democratic Party and its main benefactor, organized labor, are making clear what it means to be a Democrat, and who might not be welcome.

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, became suspect by crossing labor on international trade. Bera, a physician, tries to work with Republicans, rarely misses a vote and is the only congressional member whose family came here from India.

He’s the sort of Democrat who can hold the swing district, having defeated his Republican challenger by a scant 1,455 votes last year, thanks in part to labor’s support. Labor’s support, like that of any interest group, comes at a price. There are consequences for elected officials who stray.

Bera’s apostasy occurred this month when he announced his support for granting President Barack Obama greater authority to negotiate a free-trade deal with Asian nations. Labor helped elect Obama but is fighting the president over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation-AFL-CIO, was one of scores of union members who knocked on doors for Bera in his campaigns. No more.

“This is not a vote that we will forget,” Smith said. “We were clear with Congressman Bera that this was an issue of paramount importance to us. He made a deliberate, calculated decision to go the other way.”

Bera said his district could benefit from a deal. As for the political fallout, he said, “I’m always going to be in a tough district.”

Democrat Steve Glazer of Orinda is on the outs with his chosen party, but will be sworn into the state Senate Wednesday, having won a special election by almost 10 percentage points in a moderate district that includes parts of Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Glazer’s Democratic credentials include managing Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial comeback in 2010 and working for former President Pro Tem David Roberti, former Gov. Gray Davis and the late Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

He drifted from party orthodoxy in 2012 when he consulted, briefly, on a California Chamber of Commerce campaign to replace two liberal Assembly Democratic incumbents with two other liberal Democrats in 2012. For that transgression, the California Labor Federation-AFL-CIO placed Glazer, a political consultant, on a do-not-hire list.

In his Senate campaign, Glazer opposed the right of Bay Area Rapid Transit workers to strike, a popular stand in an East Bay district where people depend on mass transit to get to work. But in the labor-dominated Democratic Party, he committed a mortal sin.

California Democratic Party Executive Director Shawnda Westly issued a statement after Glazer’s victory, saying he “claimed to be (a) Democrat but ran a cynical campaign to appeal to Republican voters in a low-turnout election.” Hardly words to build bridges, though Glazer says Senate Democrats have welcomed him.

Labor has reason to be concerned. Blue-collar workers haven’t fared well in past free-trade deals. People have died for the right to strike, though public employees in critical jobs often forgo the right to walk. It’s not as if BART workers toil deep in mines. In 2013, the Bay Area News Group noted their gross pay averaged $76,000 a year.

A few years ago, Republicans refined the art of ostracizing moderates who supported almost anything that smacked of a tax increase. Now, Democrats seem to be taking a page from the GOP vengeance handbook.

Then there’s Isadore Hall, a Democrat in good standing. Labor donated $242,000 to Hall when he won a Compton-area state Senate seat last year. Now seeking a congressional seat that will open in 2016, Hall issued a press release last week touting 185 endorsements. It includes 13 Democratic members of Congress, five Democrats who hold statewide office, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Speaker Toni Atkins, plus several unions.

He also raises significant money from oil and tobacco. His biggest single source of campaign money comes from casino owners, card room operators and tribes, which have donated $112,000 of the $321,000 he has raised for his congressional race. He raked another $432,000 from gambling interests into his state campaign accounts last year. As chair of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, Hall is at the center of one of the biggest lobbying fights of the year, a measure to legalize Internet poker.

If you’re a union or a party leader, Internet gambling is hardly fundamental, not like the right to strike or trade. But focusing on Internet poker and taking campaign money from casinos, tobacco and oil companies seems to be perfectly acceptable for a Democrat in good standing.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter: @danielmorain.