What's Up With Those Unusual Endorsements In U.S. Senate Race?

Sep 15, 2016

This year’s US Senate race has brought the Republican incumbent an endorsement some see as unusual – the backing of the Teamsters Union. But the Democrat in the race says there’s a story behind the endorsement.

Republican U.S. Senator Rob Portman has received the endorsement of several labor groups, including the Teamsters. And he’s featuring that support in a television ad that includes these lines: “Take it from this Democrat and proud union guy. Rob Portman fights hard for Ohio’s working families.”

The endorsement caught many by surprise. After all, back in 2011, Portman’s Democratic opponent in this race, former Gov. Ted Strickland, was treated like a rock star when he walked into a rally at the Ohio Statehouse. Strickland was cheered by unions, including Teamsters members, when he joined them in the fight against Senate Bill 5, legislation that took away some union benefits. “This budget crisis is being used as an excuse….as an excuse…to destroy organized labor in Ohio. It cannot. It must not happen,” Strickland said at the time.

But why are these union groups who supported Strickland back then supporting Portman now?  If you ask Portman, he will tell you it’s because he champions fair trade and issues that affect hard working Ohioans. But if you talk to Strickland, he’ll says it all comes down to one thing – a pension reform bill that Portman has backed with a promise. Strickland points to comments made recently on C-SPAN by Ken Hall, the union's national secretary-treasurer and running mate of Teamsters President James Hoffa, when Hall was asked why the union is supporting Portman in this contest. “The reason, the sole reason is because we got a commitment that he would vote for our members on the issue of pension reform,” Hall said.

Strickland says that’s unethical. “That’s a real problem because, in my judgment, that would be a very serious ethical violation and it would explain this endorsement, would it not?”

For his part, Portman says there’s nothing unethical about it. In a teleconference, he told reporters the top leaders of those unions support him but acknowledges some other members within those ranks might still be pulling for his Democratic opponent. “Can you find somebody in the Teamsters, or for that matter, with the United Mine Workers, or for that matters, with the Fraternal Order of Police, or for that matter with the International Heavy Equipment Operators – all of whom have endorsed my opponent in the past and are endorsing me, all four of those unions this time, that are going to say something a little different than you know, what the top people say? I’m sure you can,” Portman said.

To be clear, Strickland still has support of many unions including the Ohio AFLCIO, the Ohio Education Association and the Service International Union of Ohio. But Strickland, who led earlier this year in polling, is behind in polls now. He’s been outspent by Portman and groups that back him by a four to one margin.