Federal employee groups step up political efforts as fall elections approach

As the party conventions and general election season draw closer, federal employee groups are ramping up their political contributions and mobilizing members to support candidates and raise awareness about their priorities.

In the presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will benefit primarily from those efforts. Obama has received the endorsement of four federal employee unions: the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

"As federal employees, our members have witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of the Bush administration's misguided policies, but with Sen. Obama, we can right the direction of this country," said AFGE president John Gage, a superdelegate, when he endorsed Obama in May.

The national Active and Retired Federal Employees Association does not endorse political candidates. The International Association of Machinists, the National Federation of Federal Employees' parent union, voted present at the AFL-CIO's endorsement vote, rather than give Obama a full endorsement.

Beyond presidential endorsements, federal employee organizations also are investing heavily in congressional elections, focusing their giving on House Democratic incumbents.

  • NTEU, which has 150,000 members, contributed $211,000 to candidates as of late June, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that figure, 96 percent went to Democrats and 4 percent to Republicans. NTEU gave $168,100 to House Democrats; $7,000 to House Republicans; $34,900 to House Democrats and $1,000 to one Senate Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
  • NATCA, with 20,000 members, has allocated $1.6 million in political contributions -- 77 percent to Democrats and 23 percent to Republicans. Of that total, sitting House Democrats received $1.12 million; House Republicans, $320,000; Senate Democrats, $142,225 and Senate Republicans, $52,500.
  • NARFE has given $206,500 to political candidates, with Democrats claiming 80 percent of those funds and Republicans receiving 20 percent. The organization gave $142,500 to House Democrats; $35,000 to House Republicans; $22,000 to Senate Democrats and $7,000 to Senate Republicans.
NTEU, NATCA and NARFE all have contributed to Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the panel that oversees many federal workforce issues. Davis announced in January that he would retire at the end of his term in 2008. His Northern Virginia seat is trending Democratic.

Other Republicans who received federal employee campaign contributions so far this election cycle included Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., whose donors were NTEU and NATCA, and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who received contributions from all three organizations. NTEU and NATCA also contributed to the campaign coffers of Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio. LaTourette has a particularly close relationship with the air traffic controllers' union, which honored him in 2007 with its Sentinel of Safety award.

Federal employee organizations not only are giving money to campaigns, but are participating in political activities as well. NARFE has designated August Meet Your Candidates month and is providing local union chapters and leaders with talking points and questionnaires to help suss out the candidates' views on the group's top priorities. Those issues include cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security, national health care reform and the possibility of rolling the uninsured into the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

"Congress will be in summer recess from Aug. 8 until Sept. 8, and the month is the prime time for candidates -- incumbents, challengers and those vying for open seats -- to be campaigning for the fall elections in their home districts and states, creating an excellent opportunity for NARFE members to meet with candidates and acquaint them with the association and our legislative concerns," the organization wrote to its members in the May issue of its magazine.

NTEU had been working on nonpartisan voter registration efforts before the union formally endorsed Obama, but President Colleen M. Kelley said NTEU would be organizing local endorsements for Obama, running education efforts and turning out union members to vote and participate in campaign events. She said the union would target Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"NTEU chapters around the country are gearing up their efforts to help NTEU secure a 'pro-federal employee' president," Kelley said.

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