Margaret Blackshere, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, became the first woman ever elected to that high office in 2000. It wasn't an easy campaign, despite the fact that Blackshere had been the secretary-treasurer - and sec-treasurers had almost always moved up when presidents retired.
A large number of unions, including AFSCME and the Operating Engineers Local 150, worked against her. The low point of the campaign was when the opposition accused Blackshere's running mate of supplying scab workers during a bitter Decatur strike.
Bill Dugan, the boss of Local 150, led the opposition campaign. Dugan is from the trades end of the labor spectrum, and the tradesmen worry a lot that professional unions, such as those representing the teachers, will take over the labor movement and leave the blue-collar guys behind. Plus, Blackshere was just too liberal for the famously conservative Dugan - who once invited presidential candidate and right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan to march in a parade with him.
One of the knocks on Dugan is that sometimes he seems to treasure gun rights more than worker rights, and he has chafed mightily as the national AFL-CIO has supported gun-control candidates throughout the country.
Fast-forward to December 2001. Blackshere unexpectedly muscled through a Rod Blagojevich endorsement at an AFL-CIO executive committee meeting, weeks before a larger meeting where the endorsements were supposed to be addressed. The move infuriated Dugan, partly because the 2000 election wounds had yet to fully heal. But Blackshere had also broken with protocol and denied unions their say in the matter, and, perhaps more importantly, Blago is a liberal, totally anti-gun congressman.
Almost immediately, Dugan endorsed Vallas in retaliation. Vallas is also anti-gun, but that didn't seem to matter. Vallas, eager for any union support at all, welcomed Dugan with open arms, then for weeks avoided talking about guns in public.
One of Dugan's top Local 150 lieutenants also happens to lobby for the National Rifle Association in Springfield. The NRA, along with the Illinois State Rifle Association, soon began issuing regular proclamations about Blagojevich's "radical" anti-gun record and all but ignoring Vallas' similar position on the issue.
It wasn't long before the NRA turned up a bill that Blagojevich had sponsored when he was in the Illinois House. The measure would have increased the Firearms Owner Identification card fee from $5 every five years to $500. Vallas eventually tested the issue in a poll and discovered that it killed Blago downstate. You probably know the story already: There were the dueling press conferences, Blagojevich tried to spin his way out of it by saying he really proposed a $25 fee, and finally, there were last-minute negative TV ads - encouraged by Dugan and the NRA - attacking Blago for the fee increase.
Meanwhile, Dugan was burning up the phone lines at Local 150 headquarters, cajoling other union leaders into ignoring the AFL's endorsement. But he wasn't having a ton of success with just the gun issue, and Vallas had given several unions fits when he ran the Chicago Public Schools. Plus, the AFL endorsement is a serious thing. Blackshere had placed the organization's full power behind Blagojevich, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were funneled into his campaign. Union honchos were naturally loath to make any waves.
But then Dugan heard an interesting rumor. It seemed that Blagojevich had used non-union labor to remodel his house. The rumor was checked, passed along to the Vallas folks, and then shopped around to media outlets.
After his story broke, Dugan blasted a fax to trade-union leaders throughout the state, slamming Blagojevich for taking union money but refusing to use union laborers, and saying that any union member who voted for Blago should leave his union card at home.
A huge effort was made to separate just one union local from Blagojevich, on the theory it would make the story even bigger and possibly even create a chain reaction of defections.
None of it worked. No unions defected, and Blagojevich performed better than he hoped downstate, where the gun and non-union worker issues supposedly resonated the most.
Dugan also endorsed Jim Ryan in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He is expected to go all-out for Ryan this fall. But for now, at least, he's all alone.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily newsletter about Illinois politics. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).