Purple Power

In less than four years, Grant Williams has turned a weak union local into one of Missouri's most potent political forces. So why's he placing all his bets on One-Term Bob?

But they didn't. Even Williams' wife and kids stayed at the protest while Williams was going to jail, charged with disturbing the peace. During the bus ride on the way home, they gathered bail money to spring Williams. The charges were later dropped.

Shortly after that, the state Republican Party filed two complaints, one with the Internal Revenue Service and one with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that ProVote and Missouri Citizens Education Fund, also headed by Hickey, were engaged in "political activity" with SEIU that violated the two organizations' nonprofit status.

"You essentially have a hyperpolitical operation in the SEIU which gives massive amounts of money to candidates, campaigns and the Democratic Party," says John Hancock, former head of the Missouri Republican Party and now a strategist for the party. "And then you've got what is supposed to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit social-welfare organization right there that certainly looks like a partisan, political organ, which would, of course make contributions to such entities not tax-deductible."

Jennifer Silverberg
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.
Kevin P. Madden, Labor Tribune
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.

But Williams and Hickey deny the allegations, arguing that the Republican complaint was nothing more than a ploy to grab headlines. Williams says the IRS never acted on the complaint. And he received a letter from the FEC indicating that the complaint was misfiled. With the media spotlight gone, he says, the Republican Party didn't choose to refile.

But there's no doubt that Republicans take a dim view of SEIU, especially after several Jeff City demonstrations targeting the Legislature's Republican leadership. Kinder doesn't mince words: Community groups that befriend the union and join up with it in coalitions do so at their own risk. "It is not a prescription for influencing the two solidly Republican majority chambers," he says.

That animosity worries one community activist, who is often allied with SEIU and agreed to speak on background only. "Their focus is so much on beating up Republicans that they can't talk to them at all," the activist says.

Others disagree. John Cross, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United, says that SEIU is an important partner and that his group still "works with Republicans and Democrats."

Williams says he isn't opposed philosophically to supporting worthy Republicans: He was able to do so in Georgia.

The problem here, Williams says, is that "the Missouri Republican Party is very extreme."

Given the Republicans' current hold on Missouri, some argue that SEIU's interests might be better served by throwing its considerable weight behind a stronger Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2004, but Williams refuses to dump Holden overboard for a potentially more appealing challenger such as Claire McCaskill.

"I think his numbers are up," he says, putting the best spin on things. "A lot of our members are enthusiastic about Holden -- those who aren't realize what the alternative is."

Williams says there are plenty of examples of incumbents' facing strong primary challengers, then losing the general election. Jimmy Carter lost the presidency in 1980 after facing U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in the Democratic primaries; the first George Bush went down in 1992 after fending off Pat Buchanan in the Republican primaries. "A divisive primary ends in defeat for the general [election] candidate," Williams says. "I think Claire's smart enough to figure that out," he says.

But there's an even more important reason for SEIU's backing Holden. "They still have to stick with this guy if they are going to be able to exercise their political backbone in this state," says one political strategist who spoke only on background. He notes that Holden stuck his neck out on issues that are important to SEIU: collective bargaining, nursing-home reform and a state-employee pay increase. "When the going is very, very rough, you just don't bail; sticking through the tough times is remembered far more than being there through the good," he says.

Even if Holden -- who did not return calls for this story -- ends up serving one term, as many now predict, few believe his loss will cost the union its standing with state Democrats.

"I can't conceive that any Democratic winner wouldn't want the support of the growing service segment of the economy," says former Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods.

"And that's what Grant represents."

Two charter buses idle in front of SEIU's headquarters on May 8, a cold and rainy morning. It's three days before Mother's Day and a week before the regular legislative session ends -- a session that's been anything but regular. Dozens of union members and members of other advocacy groups, many with children in tow, have turned up for a trip to Jeff City, where they expect to light a fire under lawmakers.

Chevon Martin, an organizer with SEIU, stands in the aisle with a microphone as one bus heads down Interstate 70. Everyone has already received a copy of the two-page agenda for the day.

"We are joining with a large coalition of education and health care [community groups]," she says. "We are looking at $400 to $500 million in cuts, so we have to join together with other groups."

The group wants "sensible solutions" to the state budget crisis, such as closing corporate tax loopholes. But the real business at hand is making some noise. "We're going to do an action on Catherine Hanaway," Martin tells the people on the bus.

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