Democrats at War: Public-Employee Unions vs. Gentry Liberals
Will the party remain a coalition or become a special-interest group?


Michael Barone

My subject today is the civil war raging in one of our great political parties, as highlighted in recent primary elections.

No, I’m not talking about the split between tea partiers and the Republican establishment (is there a Republican establishment anymore?). I’m talking about the split between two of the core groups of the Democratic party, as witnessed in the September 14 primaries in heavily Democratic New York (63 percent for Barack Obama in 2008), Maryland (62 percent Obama), and the District of Columbia (92 percent Obama).

In each there was a split between the public-employee unions that do so much to finance Democratic campaigns and the gentry liberals who provide Democratic votes in places like Manhattan, the Montgomery County suburbs of Maryland, and northwest Washington, D.C. And in each case, the public-employee unions won.

Fred Siegel, professor at Cooper Union and unexcelled analyst of contemporary New York politics, identifies two big winners there. One is Eric Schneiderman, a public-employee-union stalwart. He won the Democratic nomination for attorney general, an office whose previous holder, Eliot Spitzer, was elected governor in 2006, and whose current incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, seems certain to be elected governor this year. The other is the Working Families party, controlled by public-employee unions, which provides many Democrats, including Cuomo, an extra line on the ballot.

The big question is whether Cuomo, if elected, will keep his promises to hold down spending, or whether he will cave in to the unions. Siegel predicts his governorship “might well be pulled apart by these cross-tensions.”

Head down Interstate 95 to Maryland, and you see a similar picture. Longtime local analyst Blair Lee IV, whose father was acting governor in the 1970s and whose great-grandfather was elected U.S. senator in 1913, notes that candidates supported by public-employee unions whipped their opponents in Democratic primaries. In Montgomery County, the only county-council member defeated was targeted by the public-employee unions.

At the Washington Examiner, we have read with interest editorials written by our friends at the Washington Post denouncing the greed of the Montgomery County teachers’ unions. Unfortunately, their editorials (and ours) don’t seem to have cut much ice with the county’s gentry liberals, who either stayed home (turnout was a record low) or did the bidding of the unions.

But the starkest demonstration of the public-employee unions’ power came in the District of Columbia, where Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the Democratic primary by council president Vincent Gray. There’s no Republican candidate, so Gray is as good as elected.

Four years ago, Fenty carried every precinct in the city. In office, he has drawn national attention for his appointment of Michelle Rhee as school superintendent. Rhee’s reforms have produced higher test scores, stable rather than declining enrollment, a teacher-evaluation system that has resulted in the dismissal of dozens of incompetents, and a union contract giving administrators greater flexibility in assignments.