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Bill Ritter: Closet Progressive? Governor Gives Public Employees the Right To Bargain Collectively, Conservatives Howl In Pain

November 4, 2007

(Part One)

Nine months ago, in one of his first acts after getting elected, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, under pressure from business interests and those lowlifes called `new Democrats’ vetoed an amendment to the Colorado Labor Peace Act which would have granted collective bargaining rights to the state’s 30,000 public employees (one of whom happens to be my wife).

That the pressure to veto from Colorado’s business community was intense can be seen from the fact that Ritter did this after having previously encouraged the Democratically controlled state legislature to pass such legislation. Among those lobbying Ritter to veto the bill at the time were Denver’s Mayor John Hickenlooper who despite a somewhat liberal surface gloss is consistently anti-labor, especially when it has to do with anything involving unions. Hickenlooper was joined by a cacophony of financial, business, developer interests for whom the simple mention of the term `collective bargaining’ – one of the tamer forms of class struggle – spells imminent doom, nothing less.

A friend and former student who worked in Ritter’s campaign explained to me – rather unconvincingly I might add – that Ritter `had to do this’ and that labor’s demands were `unreasonable.’ My own interpretation was that Ritter had simply underestimated the state’s anti-labor bias and when faced with strong and predictable opposition from business elements, simply buckled and turned on one of his main pillars of support, the labor movement, without which it is fairly obvious, he would not have been elected in the first place, nor will he be re-elected in the future. He was caught between his constituency and his political future.

`The Great Tradition’

And I thought of how Ritter’s knifing of labor was not an isolated incident. To the contrary he had become a part of `a grand tradition’ of Democratic Party governors (and Denver mayors) who rode to power on a progressive wave – be it environmental or pro-labor – only turn away from their liberal roots under the pressure of developers, oil and gas sharks, beer manufacturers, military contractors and Colorado Springs based Christian fundamentalist types – that is the usual assortment of corporate and financial detritus who run the state. Liberals and progressives actually have a pretty good record of getting good people elected to office, but a dismal one in keeping their nose to the grindstone once the corporate lobbyists get hold of them.

Long before telling the elderly they have a `duty to die’ (he’s getting old, will he fulfill his `duty’?) and going on his anti-immigration jihad to try to win conservative support for a presidential bid, Dick Lamm had ridden a wave of environmental activism to the governorship in his public opposition to Project Rulison (go to Blog Archives 2 for late September and early October) and the proposed Olympics being held in Colorado. To one degree or another – Denver Mayors Federico Pena and Wellington Webb – both themselves products of the state’s civil rights movement – purged their initial progressive staffs and replaced them with those more amenable to developer interests (building DIA, developing Stapleton, etc).

With an eye on getting re-elected, they made their peace with power, and did so quickly, quickly forgetting from whence they had come. Occasionally, when it suited them, they’d cynically roll out their progressive credentials of days and struggles long gone. Roy Romer was no better and spent most of his time as governor chastising anything left of center as he pushed the state to help push through the Denver International Airport project. DIA was a developers wet dream, but probably will remain a Colorado taxpayer nightmare for some time into the future.

By the way there is a film adaptation of all this, John Sayles Silver City, which captures the essence of the state’s politics rather well (besides being extremely funny and well done and having a few of my friends and acquaintances as extras). So does Robert Redford’s The Milagro Bean Field War even if it took place in neighboring New Mexico and that in the movie `the people’ rather than the developers unrealistically won.

Of course, to be balanced, let us not forget that the Republican contribution to the state gubernatorial office, a former oil and gas lobbyist, Bill Owens, never had any hesitations or crises de coeur about representing the state’s working people or reigning in oil and gas drillers or developers. He was truly one of them.

Ritter: Cut Out of the Same Lamm-Romer Unsavory Mold?

So why should Bill Ritter have been any different from Lamm and Romer? Or more accurately, how could he be? The pattern was well established after all. That assortment of labor, women, environmentalists, teachers and civil rights activists that have formed the electoral base of the great liberal democratic victories in the state had become so accustomed to being shunted aside and taken for granted once their candidates were safely in office would have experienced something approaching lethal culture shock had Ritter actually delivered on his campaign promises. Apparently getting to power and ruling are not quite the same thing.

Ritter gave all appearances of being cut out of the same unsavory mold as those who came before and the question in my mind wasn’t how but when he would screw the constituency that had so faithfully elected him. And of course the state’s labor movement has become so used to electing people to local, state and national office who then turn around and screw them royally that they might not have even noticed that once again they had been betrayed.

My own admittedly cynical bent towards Ritter was in no way moderated by the facts:

1. that as Denver District Attorney he had never, not once, prosecuted a Denver police officer for excessive use of force although many incidents of police brutality took place while he was in office, especially against people of color. Had he cut some deal with the police?
2. that I saw his open opposition to abortion rights as that great political sport of simply pandering to the Christian right
3 . that much as Bill Clinton (and others had done) he could parade his more liberal wife, a former Peace Corps volunteer before the voters to suggest he is more liberal than he is in actuality

Frankly Bill Ritter did not appear particularly interesting candidate for governor. I can assure you there was no `Ritter For Governor’ on my front lawn. He seemed symbolic, once again, of all that is wrong, short-sighted and opportunistic in the state’s Democratic Party – a perfect candidate to fight the state party’s politics by the way – but, no Mike Miles.

`Some Things That Are Too Bad To Be True, Aren’t’

Still, I was impressed that he could act with such impunity against a key constituency, one whose demands, when carefully analyzed, are moderate and mainstream at best: the right to organize public sector unions. Ritter might be able to betray them now, but how could he expect any support from them in a re-election bid only three years down the road, I wondered? It was his seeming willingness to simply brush aside his labor constituency and move on to cozying up to the state’s corporate lobbyists that came off as especially brazen. But, inversing an expression I often heard from my mother – `some things too bad to be true, aren’t’.

I do not know the back room political dynamics which caused Ritter to reverse his decision and issue his executive order giving state employees the right to bargain collectively. Perhaps some zealous reporter from Westword or Al Lewis of the Denver Post (whose column is generally worth reading) can shed some light on the governor’s change of heart. Ritter’s action did seriously dent my theory that the man is little more than yet another right winger with liberal trappings who has taken his party and the state electorate for yet another ride to nowhere.

Indeed, even before Ritter revised his position on public employee collective bargaining, he had already undermined my image of him by challenging the state’s oil and gas industry. In a move that heard oil and gas circles moan with pain he seriously reworked the bylaws of the state agency granting leases to oil and gas companies. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (scroll to late Sept, early Oct blog entries) was previously made up of 7 member, 5 of whom, thanks to Bill Owens, were from the oil and gas industry itself.

The State legislature passed and Bill Ritter signed (and encouraged) a bill upping the number of commission members to 9, reducing the (more obvious) oil and gas members to 3 and mandating that other members come from relevant state agencies and environmentally oriented professional circles.

This is not the Bill Ritter I knew and had felt little more than contempt for. Worse, nor could I explain his actions on purely opportunistic grounds. Much as I hate to admit it, some political principle, some mild sense of concern for the common good was involved here. Worse yet, it took a bit of political courage. Oil and Gas interests in this state, as people might imagine, are rather influential behind-the-scenes players

It was the first time since following Ritter’s political career here that I could – admittedly grudgingly – grant him any modicum of respect. It was the first time in a long time that Colorado governor had, in an unambiguous manner, stood up to some of the more powerful – and more ruthless – corporate interests. He had actually put people before profits, very unusual for a Democrat (once they are elected that is). While the full affect of this change is still not clear, it was, a step in the right direction and one that could save the state from significant environmental damage..

Then on Friday afternoon (Nov. 2) at 3 pm, Ritter did it again (put people before profits) when by by executive order, he gave state employees the right to bargain collectively (with certain caveats: penalties for strikes, no binding arbitration, no closed shops). While the essence of the proposal is quite modest, if the local press is any indication, the order has already caused a serious uproar in conservative and business circles and I would be among many of those `new Democrats’.

It is something, but what does it all mean? I’ll look at the governor’s executive order and its implications (and limits) in greater detail later this week. .

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