Sweet column: Mayor Daley, meet SEIU president Andy Stern. SEIU flexing muscle in City Council elections.

SHARE Sweet column: Mayor Daley, meet SEIU president Andy Stern. SEIU flexing muscle in City Council elections.
SHARE Sweet column: Mayor Daley, meet SEIU president Andy Stern. SEIU flexing muscle in City Council elections.

Mayor Daley’s name is missing from the list of big city mayors who Andy Stern knows.

And who is Andy Stern? The national president of the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU is one of the most influential unions in the nation. It is the largest union in Illinois. The union is flexing its political muscle for the first time in Chicago City Council elections in a drive conceived by Tom Balanoff, the president of the SEIU Illinois State Council.

The SEIU is on track to spend $2.5 million in selected ward contests by the April 17 runoff elections. Some $1.25 million of that was for the February elections where the SEIU was heavily involved in 11 aldermanic races. Stern’s Washington headquarters sent the SEIU Illinois Council PAC a $250,000 grant for the first round in the wards and a $750,000 loan on March 26 for the runoffs, where the union is a force in nine of the 12 aldermanic elections.

In the aldermanics, the SEIU is paying for direct mail, field work, phone banks, polling, media, opposition research and election day ground operations, with the chief strategy crafted by the Chicago political consulting firm of Adelstein Liston.

The “big-box” fight is just one piece of what triggered the SEIU to show off its political muscle in the aldermanics. Last year, Daley vetoed an ordinance raising the minimum wage and benefits at Wal-Mart type stores, and the mayor had the votes to prevent an over-ride. “The City Council was tilted heavily in favor of big business and the developers,” said Jerry Morrison, the executive director of the SEIU state council. Looking at Daley’s rubber stamp council, Morrison said the decision was made to add to the pro-labor ranks. “People want more checks and balances in government,” Morrison said.

Stern is the pragmatic, forward-looking labor leader who is building the SEIU into one of the fastest growing unions in the country. The SEIU is taking a lead in making health care a top agenda item in the 2008 presidential elections, recently sponsoring a health issues forum attended by the leading Democratic White House contenders in Nevada.

Stern works from the bottom up as well as the top down. The SEIU, with 100,000 members in Chicago, is demonstrating that the fundamental political equation in the city is changing. Daley’s organization — such as it is nowadays — has been weakened by scandal and the demise of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which ran Daley’s machine. Despite the federal City Hall probes, Daley, to his credit, is personally popular, sweeping all 50 wards in his February re-election.

When it comes to Chicago’s City Council elections, Stern said a message to Daley is that he has to “deal with a new set of realities.”

Stern is looking for partnerships with the city and the mayor — on health care, education and, yes, the “big-box” problem, which the newly elected City Council is likely to take up again. Stern told me he is looking for “opportunities to have additional discussions” with Daley on big-box, not adversarial showdowns.

“With a new mix of aldermen, we’d start down a different road to work together,” Stern said. “All of our leadership wants Chicago to be successful,” Stern said. It’s just that “the days of unilateralism in Chicago may be over.” He called Daley “an incredibly strong, successful mayor.”

The new reality for Daley is to realize the city will benefit from a bigger tent. There’s some talk that some kind of cap should be placed on union money in aldermanic contests. Any cap, of course, should be across the board. “People don’t like a [shift] in the balance of power,” Stern said, “particularly people who benefited from a more controlled leadership structure. . . . This is what democracy looks like.”

One reason the SEIU does well is that it is innovative — and not afraid to step outside its own box.

Earlier this year, Stern joined with strange bedfellows — Wal-Mart, Intel, Kelly Services — and other unions and think tanks on the left and the right to launch a campaign to get more people affordable health care coverage. The enormous carrot to business — and the incentive to work with the unions — is to find a way to transition to a health insurance system that is not employer based.

Stern, like Daley, is practical and just want to gets things done.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa knows Stern. So does Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, Mayor Bill White of Houston and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco. After the runoffs — no matter the outcomes — Daley and Stern, if they sat down, would find they share a goal of building a better Chicago

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