Labor turns against leading House Democrat

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OLYMPIA — The word "no" has caught up with state Rep. Helen Sommers, landing her in the cross hairs of organized labor.

Sommers, 72, is one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington. As chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, she has vast influence over who gets money and who doesn't.

During the state's deep recession she's turned down lots of people. "Unfortunately, some of them are very powerful and important Democratic constituencies," said Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt.

Sommers is pro-choice, pro-labor and a former president of the National Organization for Women chapter in Seattle. Since 1973 she's represented Seattle's liberal 36th District, an area that runs from Phinney Ridge and Ballard to Queen Anne and Belltown.

But union officials contend Sommers has not been fully supportive on some key issues, such as providing raises for SEIU-represented home health-care workers and restricting corporate tax breaks.

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, sees Sommers' primary challenge as a warning by labor to toe the line or else. "I think they're telling you that if you don't cooperate on the program 100 percent, they're going to try and defeat you," he said.

David Rolf, president of the SEIU Local 775, said his union won't shy from taking on candidates, including Sommers, if they're not in sync with labor's agenda.

"For too long the labor movement has been considered the lap dog of one party rather than the watchdog for both parties. The time has passed where we can allow one party to write us off and the other to take us for granted," Rolf said.

Labor doesn't have to worry much about a Republican taking Sommers' seat if she's defeated. In the 36th, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.

Taking on Sommers won't be easy, however. She's been in office for 32 years and was frequently re-elected without opposition. During the past eight general elections, her vote total never fell below 70 percent.

Although facing her most formidable opposition in decades, Sommers was upbeat about the coming campaign. "I think I'll have a lot of support," she said. "I'm well-known in the district."

Sommers also has some significant labor endorsements of her own, including the Machinists union representing Boeing employees and the city and county employees union.

Yet she's clearly bothered by the strong union opposition, which she attributes to what she calls the "predatory nature of the SEIU leadership."

Aggressive tactics

The SEIU, which represents 26,000 home health-care workers, is known for aggressive and sometimes unorthodox tactics.

The union helped recruit Woldt to run against Sommers and has contributed several thousand dollars to her campaign.

The union lobbied hard at the state labor-council convention to win Woldt the council's endorsement. "They were basically the outfit leading the charge," said David Westberg, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609.

There's been speculation that House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has clashed with Sommers over the years and who is a friend of Woldt's, also urged her to run. Chopp, D-Seattle, said he did not encourage Woldt.

Sommers hasn't always been at odds with big labor; however, union officials say they have plenty of reasons to oppose her now. They blame her for not putting money in the budget to cover voter-mandated teacher pay raises, supporting charter schools and not putting enough restrictions on corporate tax breaks.

A contentious raise

But what probably spurred the SEIU most was what it considered Sommers' lack of enthusiasm for a home health-care workers contract.

The union in 2002 had reached an agreement with state negotiators that called for a $2.07-an-hour raise and new state-subsidized benefits. But the contract went to the Legislature in 2003 at the same time state budget-writers were struggling with a projected $2.6 billion revenue shortfall.

Legislators ended up giving home health-care workers a 75-cent raise. "Helen Sommers actively worked to prevent the Legislature from honoring a union contract with home health-care workers," said Adam Glickman, a spokesman for the SEIU.

Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, a Kent firefighter and an ally of organized labor, said that during the session, Sommers "would point out the deficiencies of the contract and just emphasize any negative aspect."

Sommers said SEIU did well to get a raise at all. The union was asking for a boatload of money at a time when the state was making deep cuts, plus "the governor said no new taxes, and the Senate said no new taxes," Sommers said. "They received a significant increase when no one else did."

In the 2004 session, she noted, the Legislature did approve the contract and gave the workers an additional 50 cents an hour plus benefits.

Conservative or liberal?

Woldt said she's counting on union support but stressed that she has a broader base than just labor.

"Some of Helen's supporters might want to put me in the box of the labor candidate, but I think I have a much larger draw than that," Woldt said. "I have a lot of friends and people in the community that I've worked with in the human-service community, the peace community and the Democratic Party."

Woldt and her backers are focusing on Sommers' Democratic credentials.

"I think she's pretty conservative for the 36th District. Her economic conservatism has gone too far to the Republican side," said Woldt, 64, who is executive director for the Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone. She recently stepped down after 17 years on the executive staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and is a past chairwoman of the King County Democratic Party.

Several prominent Democratic legislators defend Sommers.

"By any standard, Helen is a very liberal Democrat," said Ed Murray, D-Seattle, an openly gay Seattle Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "Only in Seattle is she being painted as something else than a liberal."

Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the House Health Care Committee and an SEIU member, also said the criticism is unwarranted. "We have worked together on the health-care budget for the last eight years," Cody said. "I certainly felt like health and human services were well represented and that (Sommers) listened to it and tried to get us the money we needed."

Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman sees a hard-fought primary race. "Both sides have something to prove," he said. "Alice and her backers want to show that no Democrat is safe. Helen and her backers want to prove that seniority and experience matters."

If Woldt wins, several state lawmakers will be looking over their shoulders.

State Sen. Jacobsen noted he's cast votes that don't line up with SEIU's agenda.

"I think I'm next," he said.

Helen Sommers

State representative since 1973, key player in hammering out the state budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Age: 72

Education: Master's in economics, University of Washington

Pitch: "I think we're both very supportive of schools and interested and concerned in providing health care ... I've had to make tough decisions. I think that is a critical difference."

Alice Woldt

Longtime Democratic activist, past chairwoman of the King County Democratic Party, executive director of SAGE, Seattle Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone. Spent 17 years on the executive staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

Age: 64

Education: Master's in public administration, Seattle University

Pitch: Says she'd play more of a leadership role than state Rep. Helen Sommers on health care and funding for schools. "She could have been out front and influencing those issues. I don't think Helen has made use of that opportunity."