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Union dives into political spending

SEIU had fought corporate outlays on ads

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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The Service Employees International Union, the politically active labor group whose members include health care workers and janitors, has fought against corporations spending unlimited cash on candidates, warning it would “distort and ultimately delegitimize the electoral process.’’

But the union has now organized its own group that can spend limitless amounts of money to influence elections, and that group is running an ad criticizing Senator Scott Brown.

The name of the organization, MassUniting, does not hint at its ties to the union, but records from the secretary of state’s office show its three principal officers are local SEIU officials.

Campaign finance laws do not require MassUniting to disclose its donors, but the group says it is using money from SEIU, a major spender in federal elections, as well as from smaller nonprofit partners, such as Mass Senior Action, and the Chinese Progressive Association.

It represents an early trickle of what is expected to be a deluge of advertising from national interest groups that oppose and support Brown’s 2012 reelection bid.

SEIU officials defend their spending, saying it would be irresponsible of them to unilaterally disarm in the wake of last year’s Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions may raise and spend unlimited amounts to advocate directly for federal candidates.

“We’re doing everything we can to see that Citizens United is reversed, but we’re not going to fight with one hand tied behind our back,’’ said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for SEIU Local 509, where the chief of staff is the treasurer of MassUniting.

SEIU officials also argue there is a difference between the union using dues from its 2.1 million members to influence an election and corporate chiefs spending their money on ads.

“We’ve got, in the state of Massachusetts, tens of thousands of members who believe that Scott Brown represents Wall Street, and doesn’t represent our members’ interests,’’ said Patrick McCabe, who is executive director of SEIU Local 888 and president of MassUniting. “That’s what democracy is - millions of people coming forward, standing up for what they believe in.’’

Brown’s camp doesn’t see it that way.

“MassUniting is a far-left front group for the SEIU that has been established to traffic in misleading attacks on Scott Brown,’’ said Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager.

In the 2010 special election, Brown received significant support from rank-and-file union members as he defeated Democrat Martha Coakley, even though she had the support of labor leaders.

SEIU is not alone in trying to reconcile its opposition to Citizens United with the new spending rules it authorized. Many unions and Democratic groups that criticized the decision are now moving aggressively to take advantage of the decision, because they realize Congress is not going to tighten campaign finance laws before the 2012 elections, said Richard L. Hasen, a campaign finance specialist at the University of California-Irvine.

The AFL-CIO, for example, recently announced plans to launch a so-called Super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates.

“Now that there’s going to be no legislative change, the line coming out of the Democratic side and the left is ‘you have to fight fire with fire,’ ’’ Hasen said. Unions argue that “you go to campaign finance battle with the rules you have, rather than the rules as you want them to be,’’ he said. Unions had organized groups such as MassUniting prior to Citizens United. But the ruling has given those groups greater power to influence elections.

As long as political activity is not their primary purpose, the groups can now run ads that advocate directly for or against a candidate’s election, and are no longer confined to nominally issue-oriented ads, said Michael E. Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a legal adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

They can also use corporate and union money to run ads at any time during an election. Previously, they were barred from using that money for ads 30 days prior to a primary and 60 days prior to a general election.

MassUniting’s new ad, “Bobblehead Brown,’’ shows images of nodding bobblehead dolls and accuses the Massachusetts Republican of wanting to ship jobs overseas and cut Medicare and Social Security. The nonpartisan group factcheck.org said several of the ad’s charges are inaccurate and called it “a misleading liberal ad.’’

“It’s a good example of how the Citizens United decision has promoted robust political speech across the spectrum,’’ Toner said.

“There’s rightly been a focus on corporations’’ spending more after Citizens United, he said. “But labor unions also have much broader latitude, and it sounds like SEIU is taking advantage of that.’’

SEIU officials say MassUniting was not organized to oppose Brown and that targeting the senator is only one of its goals. Launched in April, it describes itself as a “coalition of neighbors, community groups, faith organizations and labor united in the fight for good jobs, corporate accountability and stronger communities.’’

In addition to running the ad, and picketing several of the senator’s events, MassUniting has organized neighborhood economic forums and protested foreclosures.

“Folks are definitely missing the point if they think MassUniting is a group that’s set up to take out Scott Brown,’’ McCabe said. “His name wasn’t even mentioned in the first several months of what we were doing.’’

McCabe said the group has not decided whether it will run more ads criticizing Brown, but would not rule it out. “I’m sure we’re going to continue pointing out the issues that are facing working-class folks, and point out the fact that we need to fight for a fair economy,’’ he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson