Politics & Policy

Grimes and Big Labor: Not a Love Story

An audiotape reveals that some union activists are unhappy with the Kentucky Democrat.

A recent meeting between union members and representatives of Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’s Senate campaign turned sour just weeks before the election, with labor activists complaining they have been ignored and mistreated by the Grimes campaign.

National Review Online obtained an audio recording of the September 24 meeting between union activists and Phinis Hundley, speaking for the Grimes campaign. The audio captures the back and forth between the two camps and the frustration that some activists feel with the Grimes campaign.

“It’s not been really easy to get communication back and forth from the campaign, so, what’s our best line of communication?” a female union activist asks.

Hundley, at the meeting on Grimes’s behalf, expresses astonishment. “You mean to tell me that Democratic people are volunteering and not hearing anything back from the campaign?” he says.

Others on the call echo the initial complaint. It’s difficult to distinguish individuals in the chorus of voices, but at least some activists are “not impressed” with members of the Grimes team who are “not very good” at following up with supporters and potential volunteers.

One man wonders whether the Grimes campaign has altogether abandoned organized labor, typically a crucial voting bloc for the Democratic party. “Is it possible that they have another group of people that they’re spending their time with?” he asks. “Is the campaign busy with another group of people? I’m just curious if there’s another plan beyond labor, at this point.”

Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) did not make this mistake last cycle, one activist notes. “We’ve never been treated the way we’ve been treated from the Grimes campaign, and that is a very big complaint I’ve heard from a lot of people, and that needs to be noticed by the campaign,” the woman says. (Union workers from Ohio and Kentucky, which border each other, often work on races in both states.)

Communications Workers of America area-president Steve Cruse — a member of the labor council for Cincinnati, Ohio, and Northern Kentucky who helped organize the meeting with the Grimes team — tells NRO that the meeting was called to give union members an opportunity to raise issues with the Grimes campaign. They took the opportunity to note the need for repairs on the local I-75 bridge.

That’s the repair Grimes herself is currently pushing. “[Mitch McConnell] has offered no plan to help Northern Kentucky — even as the Brent Spence Bridge crumbles,” she said in a Thursday afternoon tweet.

“My belief is that it was probably a limited incident, and [the union activist] was just voicing her concerns,” says Cruse, noting that it was only two attendees who were complaining. “I have not really heard that from anybody else. . . . When I’ve talked to them, I’ve always had a pretty good experience.”

Polls show that the race between Grimes and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), once considered a Democratic pick-up opportunity, is currently headed in McConnell’s direction. The audio provides a window into the attempt of the Grimes campaign to keep supporters energized in the face of this trend, and it’s yet another indication that the Senate might be slipping away from the Democrats.

National Democrats have poured millions of dollars into defeating McConnell and frustrating his chances of becoming the Senate majority leader. They hand-picked Grimes, the daughter of a prominent and wealthy Kentucky Democrat, to challenge him this year. Bill and Hillary Clinton have come to the state to campaign with her on multiple occasions. 

Grimes’s out-of-state fundraisers have given rise to frustration among labor activists who want her to campaign in areas that they regard as important.

“It’s got to the point that if somebody from California calls and says, ‘We want to do a fundraiser and get you a quarter of a million dollars.’ Well, she has to say, ‘Look, you know, I’m going to be out there, let’s schedule three,’” Hundley says in defense of Grimes. “She’s got contributions from every state, and I don’t know how many states she has visited for major fundraisers.”

Hollywood mega-donor and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has said the Kentucky race is his top priority this year, helped raise more than $1 million at a fundraiser for Grimes in January and yet more money at another gathering last month.

Though Grimes lags in the polls — the most recent has her trailing McConnell by four points — Cruse, the labor activist, believes the race remains close. “I think she’s much closer than everybody thinks,” he says.

Labor activists will work as hard for Grimes as they did for Brown in 2012, Cruse predicts, but he tacitly acknowledges that Obama won’t be an asset in this race. “McConnell wants to tie everything that he hates about Obama or the party to her, and, this is a race between the two of them,” Cruse says. “It has nothing to do with the president.”

If Grimes doesn’t satisfy the concerns of union activists, that may be the least of her worries.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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