“Agent Keen, in this world there are no sides, only players.”
–  Raymond Reddington, played by actor James Spader, NBC’s “Blacklist,” February 12, 2015

To exemplify the intensifying battle of players regardless of sides, look no further than California’s two competitive State Senate special elections set for this March. In Orange County’s Senate District 37, Republican John Moorlach is running against Republican Don Wagner. In Contra Costa County’s Senate District 7, three Democrats are competing for the open seat, Steve Glazer, Susan Bonilla, and Joan Buchanan.

What differentiates these candidates? It certainly isn’t their party affiliation.

In Contra Costa County the reason these candidates differ is very clear. Steve Glazer has taken positions that are hated by the unions, and the other candidates have not. In particular, Glazer was critical of the 2013 BART strike, and he has been outspoken for years on the need for pension reform. The city of Orinda, where Glazer has served as a councilmember and currently serves as mayor, offers a defined contribution plan to city workers. This solution terrifies the government unions, and the union’s allies in the financial community, but it spares that city of crippling financial challenges in the form of pension obligation bonds and payments on the inevitable unfunded pension liabilities.

When Glazer ran for state assembly last year, the unions reported over $2.0 million in campaign spending to defeat him. They spent an estimated additional unreported $2.0 million on “internal member communications,” i.e., mailers and other campaign communications to the households of any of the thousands of members of any of the unions that actively opposed his candidacy.

Glazer has been endorsed this time by Democrat Chuck Reed, the San Jose mayor who had the temerity to question the financial viability of paying public safety employees retirement pension and benefit packages that average well over $100,000 per year after 25 years of full time work. Glazer has also been endorsed by Republican Michaela Hertle, who, prior to dropping out of contention, had been the only Republican in the race.

As Chuck Reed once said, there are union democrats and there are progressive democrats. Or as Glazer has put it, if you believe government should provide services, you have to have accountability and efficiency. But the unions who oppose Glazer haven’t fought him on the issues. Instead, last year they successfully smeared him as being a puppet of billionaires, because he worked for a few months as a consultant to the California Chamber of Commerce – and since that group receives some of its support from tobacco and oil companies, apparently Glazer is a puppet of those companies.

These tactics rely on ludicrous distortions. But they work. Take a look at the attack ads used against Glazer. “The Facts About Steve Glazer and Big Tobacco,” a photo of Glazer in a pile of cigarette butts, a photo of Glazer standing beside a pool of spilled crude oil. And right now, some political consulting firm is testing new attack ads to use on Glazer. His offense? He is a centrist Democrat who has firm principles and isn’t afraid support policies opposed by government unions.

In Orange County’s District 37 two Republicans are squaring off, former Orange County county supervisor and long-time pension reform advocate John Moorlach, vs. 68th district Assemblyman John Wagner. These are both strong candidates, but Moorlach probably scares the unions more. As a certified public accountant and successful public servant, Moorlach both understands the intricacies of pension finance and – if elected – possesses the ability to communicate the challenges with pensions to his colleagues in the state legislature.

Wagner, by contrast, while having a voting record as a politician that has earned him credibility with voters in conservative Orange County, has incensed union reform advocates by recently accepting a donation to his campaign of $8,500 from the Peace Officers Research Association of California. Reached for comment earlier this week, Wagner acknowledged that around 2011 he had probably signed a pledge to the Orange County Lincoln Club to not accept union money, but noted that it was during a previous election. Wagner also said he adhered to the so-called “Baugh Manifesto,” authored by former Orange County GOP chairman Scott Baugh, which prohibited GOP candidates from accepting government union contributions, but stated the Baugh Manifesto only applies to local races, not races for state office.

More to the point, when asked whether or not he would feel compelled to vote in accordance with a government union since he took their money, Wagner paraphrased Ronald Reagan, who famously said “when somebody gives me money, that doesn’t mean I am buying their agenda, it means they are buying my agenda.” Hopefully Wagner, if elected, will resist the government union agenda. And hopefully he will not, like many conservatives do, exclude public safety unions from being impacted by reforms designed to improve accountability and efficiency in government. A bankrupt police state is no more desirable than a bankrupt welfare state. The government union agenda impels California and the nation towards both of those undesirable outcomes.

California’s conventional political sides – Republican and Democrat – are blurring. Two big issues facing Californians that are both urgent and utterly bipartisan are (1) quality education, and (2) fiscal responsibility. On both of these issues, government unions oppose reforms. Any voter who cares about these two issues, regardless of their party affiliation, should ask themselves just one question: Which player do the government unions fear more?

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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Two Tales of a City – How Detroit Transcended Ideology to Reform Pensions, July 22, 2014

Government Employee Unions – The Root Cause of California’s Challenges, June 3, 2014

A “Left-Right Alliance” Against Public Sector Unions?, May 20, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014  (The Kelly Thomas Story)

Pension Funds and the “Asset” Economy, February 18, 2014

Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform, January 28, 2014

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda, June 18, 2013

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