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At the convention, a gaggle of government workers

At the convention, a gaggle of government workers

At the Democratic National Convention, public employees are out in force.

The National Education Association boasts 317 delegates, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 140 delegates. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has a whopping 270 delegates.

Other public employee unions have smaller contingents in Los Angeles. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has 58 conventioneers, the International Association of Firefighters, 31, and the National Association of Letter Carriers, 23.

For the first time at a convention, members of the National Treasury Employees Union are delegates-four, to be exact. Each of the unions said its number of delegates is a record.

For many years, public employees were restricted from serving as delegates to national party conventions. The barriers fell throughout the 1990s, and now 41 of 50 states have virtually no restrictions. In 1993, the Hatch Act, the law governing federal employees' political activities, was changed to allow federal employees to become delegates.

Many of the public employee unions are members of the Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement (FAIR), headed by Vincent R. Sombrotto, the president of the letter carriers. George Gould, a letter carriers' lobbyist and the chairman of FAIR's legislative committee, said that the public employee unions are concerned about Medicare and Social Security reform, as well as the federal employee pension plan.

Besides joining other unions at rallies and press conferences this week, the public employee unions have plenty on their own plates. The teachers' unions held a brunch Monday at the Beverly Hilton to honor President Clinton, and the next day, the AFT held a breakfast for Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The SEIU honored members of Congress on Tuesday.

Public employee unions are among the biggest givers of "soft money" to the Democrats. AFSCME has shelled out $1.9 million this election cycle. The SEIU has chipped in $800,000. The firefighters have given $400,000.

The Clinton Administration has not always been supportive of federal workers. But Democrats remain the unions' party of choice. NEA members are particularly attuned to politics this election year, said spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons. "With vouchers and other assaults on the public schools, they've got to be at the convention for their jobs, their livelihoods."

For public employees, the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush is clear, says David Billy of the firefighters. "George Bush has vetoed collective bargaining legislation in Texas. He's opposed allowing unions to deduct dues from workers' paychecks. It's not even a close call."