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Organized Labor Split in East Bay Assembly Race

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Contra Costa Democratic Party chair María Alegría gives canvassing instructions to union volunteers in Pinole.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a handful of volunteers wearing red shirts dotted a Kaiser Permanente parking lot in the East Bay city of Pinole.

The gathering was organized by the California Nurses Association in an effort to elect a fellow nurse, Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, to the California State Assembly. The volunteers were handed a precinct map, water bottles and a set of marching orders to rally voters in this hotly contested race.

A dozen miles south of the nurses' gathering, a group of educators with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers fanned out across that city to canvass for their candidate of choice, Berkeley School Board member Judy Appel.

The huge field of candidates in the 15th Assembly District (currently at 11, the largest of Assembly races in the state) threatens to split the vote among leading Democrats.

And a handful of those candidates have already split the loyalties of California's most powerful labor unions, leading to an arms race between typical allies in a district Democrats are virtually assured of winning.

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"Unfortunately, with the election season happening and initiatives and gubernatorial races, it starts to definitely eat at the resources from various unions," said Stephanie Roberson, legislative advocate with the California Nurses Association. "I think you would hear resoundingly across the board that it would be great to unify around one candidate."

Instead, the nurses have lined up behind Pardue-Okimoto, a councilwoman in El Cerrito, while teachers unions (including the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers) have backed Appel.

A third candidate, Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, is supported by other unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters.

Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb and East Bay Municipal Utilities Director Andy Katz have also picked up endorsements from organized labor groups.

Together, organized labor has spent more than $300,000 in the race. The number is a fraction of the amount unions will spend in California elections this year, but a hefty sum aimed at boosting these candidates into the November general election.

And the three candidates who count organized labor among their top donors, Appel, Beckles and Pardue-Okimoto, presented very few policy differences for union members to sort through during the endorsement process.

"We have an instance here in AD 15 where there are some really good candidates," said Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. "I can't imagine it was the easiest decision for them."

Once endorsements were secured last year, organized labor groups have lent invaluable campaign support to their chosen candidates in AD 15.

They've helped recruit votes through member-to-member communication, organized canvassing and hosted phone banking: At the Berkeley Federation of Teachers office, volunteers spent a recent weekend making calls for Appel.

These efforts pale in comparison to the CNA's financial investment to elect Pardue-Okimoto.

The group has created an independent expenditure committee (with the ability to spend unlimited funds) to support her candidacy, spending nearly $180,000 on campaign mailers and a billboard along Interstate 80.

The CNA said it was won over by Pardue-Okimoto's work experience and her commitment to pursue single-payer health care in the state Legislature. That's a goal shared by Appel, Beckles and other Democrats in the race.

"We are definitely engaged in this race. It's one of our number one priorities," Roberson said.

Only two of the 10 remaining Democrats in the race can advance beyond the June primary, and any unification of organized labor will have to wait until then.

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