"You are a member of the SEIU? Are you here to protest?" his interlocutors ask, Roberts recounted in an interview with Convention Daily. "People don't quite know how to deal with us."
What people forget is that although the powerful union is heavily Democratic and has endorsed Democratic nominee Barack Obama for president, about 25 percent of the 2 million members are registered Republicans, and their voice matters, said Roberts. The Connecticut native was hired three years ago by SEIU President Andy Stern to help bolster the SEIU's voice among Republicans and help the union find common ground with the party on economic security issues.
"It's important to leverage our support" on both sides of the aisle, said Roberts, a former aide to the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii.
Under Stern, the SEIU is making a concerted effort to build bridges with the GOP, and for the first time ever it helped to finance a Republican convention by giving $50,000 to the host committee. Furthermore, the SEIU wrote a $25,000 check to the Republican Governors Association and gave about $10,000 to the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Those checks got Roberts invited to several receptions at the convention, which has helped the SEIU make a few new friends. The union also held a reception on Sunday afternoon to honor Republican labor activists in state delegations. Roberts said 2,000 were invited, and 200 came. Though the number may seem low, the lobbyist said the process was useful for the SEIU because it raised awareness among SEIU members that the union cares about its Republican members.
"It is hard for people to wrap their minds around the concept," said Roberts. "I think we are in the consciousness-raising phase right now."
This November, while most of the union will be focusing its energy on electing Democrats, the SEIU's political action committee will endorse and give money to several Republican candidates, including Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. Roberts estimated that the union will probably spend about $150,000 to $200,000 on electing Republican candidates -- a tiny amount compared to the $85 million that the Change to Win alliance (which the SEIU is part of) expects to spend on get-out-the-vote efforts that are likely to help mainly Democrats.
The SEIU isn't the only union to reach out to Republicans this week. The National Education Association Fund for Children, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and others co-hosted a lunch with pro-labor Republicans, which included Reps. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Denny Rehberg of Montana.
Randy Moody, the chief lobbyist of the teacher's union, said the convention has been a "good opportunity to let people know that we have 3.2 million members and 1 million of them are Republicans." Moody, himself a lifelong Republican, said the NEA event had some 200 people in attendance. "It's certainly appropriate for us to be here."
For full coverage of the Republican National Convention, go to NationalJournal.com.