UPDATE: As one helpful reader on Twitter reminded me, Ward has also proposed an additional homestead exemption for emergency responders. So that’s obviously something that might make him a more appealing candidate to cops and firefighters.
Police and firefighters unions are often key political players in cities throughout the country, but they’re particularly influential in Texas, since they’re the only public sector unions that the state allows to have real bargaining power. State law does not give unions representing other government employees (notably AFSCME) the same respect. Those unions can still play an important role as advocates for government workers, particularly in places where elected officials are sympathetic to labor, but they often have a hard time convincing workers to become dues-paying members.
In addition to their ability to negotiate strong contracts, police and fire unions tend to attract dues-paying members because of the fraternal culture fostered by the nature of their work. That helps to counteract the effects of Texas’ “right-to-work” law, which bars unions from charging mandatory fees.
It’s not easy to predict who police and fire unions are going to support for city elected positions. Like other government employee associations, they are interested in maintaining or bolstering services and protecting/boosting their pay and benefits. They differ, however, in that unlike AFSCME, which represents a broad range of professions, the police and fire associations only represent one group of workers. A pay increase that they win might come at the expense of other government workers’ pay.
I really can’t comment on the politics of the average firefighter, but it’s no secret that cops tend to be more conservative than other government employees. That trend has likely been accentuated in recent years due to the increased pressure from activists over police brutality and misconduct. My guess is that the threats of budget cuts from conservatives have been overshadowed by the hostility that cops sense from progressives over use of force, racial profiling etc.
So it’s hardly shocking that the Austin Police Association is pulling hard for Frank Ward, who if elected will replace outgoing CM Ellen Troxclair as the only Republican on City Council.
The APA has spent roughly $32,000 promoting Ward in his runoff campaign against liberal candidate Paige Ellis. To put that figure in context, Ward raised $54,000 prior to the general election and Ellis raised about $11,000. It’s very likely that whatever APA spends for the runoff will match or exceed whatever Ward spends on his own
The APA has also endorsed Natasha Harper-Madison in District 1 and incumbent CM Pio Renteria in District 3. Those endorsements aren’t surprising either. While Harper-Madison is outspoken about racial injustice, she has made a point of expressing support for police officers. That she is too “pro-cop” is one reason the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, will not support her. Renteria has also bemoaned negative attitudes towards police officers in the past, although he went along with other Council members in withholding a police contract over pay and oversight measures.
However, APA’s support of Harper-Madison and Renteria appear to be mostly “paper endorsements,” with little accompanying money. They gave each a $350 contribution but do not appear to be making any independent expenditures on their behalf.
The Austin Firefighters Association has endorsed the same three candidates but they do not appear to have spent substantially in the races. I don’t really get why they support Ward. Unlike cops, firefighters don’t have any major policy conflicts with liberal elected officials. Their top priority should really be fire services and firefighter compensation. Liberals are generally a better bet on those fronts than conservatives.
In response to my questions, AFA President Bob Nicks offered this reasoning on Twitter:
Back in 2016 the AFA endorsed the center-right Sheri Gallo over liberal Alison Alter in wealthy West Austin District 10. More baffling was its endorsement of right-wing extremist Don Zimmerman in his race against Jimmy Flannigan in far northwest District 6. However, both of those candidates were incumbents. Many organizations tend to support incumbents because they are the favorites. In 2014, for instance, the AFA endorsed almost all of the liberal candidates in Council races, including Jimmy Flannigan (who was running against Zimmerman) and Mandy Dealey (running against Gallo).
At the end of the day, while unions are of course focused on their self-interest, they are organizations made up of individuals with individual political preferences. The personal politics of a union’s leader(s) can play a big role in shaping a union’s political advocacy.
Correction: I had to update this post because I mistakenly believed that the AFA had endorsed Zimmerman and Gallo in 2014, when they were running for open seats. In fact, the AFA endorsed their opponents in 2014 but then backed Zimmerman and Gallo when they ran for reelection in 2016.