Way back in 1990, I was making $17,000 a year working for an online Statehouse news and information company. I was too broke for a vacation, so I helped pay for a modest trip by covering a strike at the Delta Pride catfish-processing company in Indianola, Mississippi, for a few publications. Almost all of the striking workers were Black women, and their highly-unusual walk-out had caused a national stir. I was fascinated by what was happening and wanted to see the action up close.
In the process of covering the strike, I visited the union’s makeshift soup kitchen. I spotted a woman ladling soup who looked a lot like Representative Mary Flowers (D-Chicago). Sure enough, after approaching the soup lady, I discovered she was indeed Representative Flowers, who it turned out is from Mississippi. Representative Flowers explained that her sister was one of the strikers and she was spending her break helping as best she could. And even though she was there to support family and friends, she was clearly in Mississippi to also demonstrate solidarity with the striking union workers, and she was obviously proud to do her part for the over-worked, underpaid, and mistreated employees, who eventually prevailed.
We didn’t talk long, but seeing her in those circumstances has always stayed with me.
I’m telling you this because, despite the fact that Representative Flowers has compiled an 89-percent lifetime AFL-CIO voting record after serving 39 years in the Illinois House, labor unions are falling all over each other to contribute to her Democratic primary opponent Michael Crawford. As I write this, those union contributions have totaled more than $362,000, and much more is coming Crawford’s way. We’re likely looking at seven figures there.
I’m fully aware that voting records are not the be-all, end-all for any organization, including organized labor. Other factors often come into play.
But it’s abundantly clear that those unions are acting at the behest of House Speaker Chris Welch, who can control their legislative destinies. No way could she have been targeted without his consent and even encouragement.
Speaker Welch stripped Flowers of her Deputy Majority Leader title and barred her from attending House Democratic caucus meetings last year after a large majority of his members complained about her behavior. She was disrespectful and rude to colleagues and allegedly abusive to some staff. She was behaving as the opposite of a caucus leader. I fully support the notion that she should not have run again and instead should’ve retired and took her pension of at least $256,000 after one year.
But this whole thing bothers me on multiple levels:
(1) If the massive union contributions succeed in toppling Representative Flowers, how much will Speaker Welch owe them for conducting this political hit, and what will he have to do to repay the favor? I’ve been wanting to ask Welch about this for weeks, but for the first time ever in my career, I was denied an interview request after it was initially granted. I was told he wants to wait until after the primary to explain everything.
(2) How beholden will Michael Crawford be to the unions and to any other interest groups which chip in on this endeavor if he wins?
(3) How can other House Democrats be assured that regularly voting for organized labor’s bills will prevent the same dire fate from happening to them? Yes, Flowers is an extreme case, but the unions and Speaker Welch are also trying to unseat Representative Cyril Nichols (D-Chicago), who has a 95-percent lifetime AFL-CIO voting record. I also wanted to ask Welch why Representative Nichols is being targeted and why other members should feel secure, but, again, my interview request was denied.
I mean, I get it. This is Democratic Party “family business.” Sometimes, things just gotta be done. “We had to sit still and take it,” lamented the Goodfellas movie character Henry Hill after his friend Tommy DeVito was whacked by the mob. “It was revenge for Billy Batts, and a lot of other things. And there was nothing that we could do about it.”
Flowers is Flowers. Nichols has associated himself with people hostile to Welch’s leadership, including former Representative Ken Dunkin. And both Nichols and Flowers have angered other powerful and influential interest groups which Welch relies on. I’d hope, though, that Welch has put some limits on his thankfulness.
I’ll close by stating the obvious: Speaker Welch had better win these races. If everyone thought that Mary Flowers was a chaos agent before, just wait to see what happens if she gets another term.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and Capitol Fax.com.