Columbia officials weigh in on campaign endorsements

Sunday, April 10, 2011 | 4:42 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 10, 2011

COLUMBIA — Brad Fraizer isn't having any second thoughts.

Fraizer, president of the Columbia Professional Firefighters, said neither he nor the union has plans to stay on the sidelines in future municipal elections. The role of the firefighters' and other organizations' endorsements became a lightning rod in the Fifth Ward race for City Council.

Fifth Ward candidate Glen Ehrhardt received endorsements from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the Columbia Police Officers Association and the Columbia Professional Firefighters. City firefighters played an active role in his bid for elected office.

Helen Anthony, Ehrhardt’s opponent, took issue with firefighters' working on Ehrhardt’s behalf and used their role to rally her supporters.

Despite Ehrhardt's endorsements, Anthony defeated him, taking 220 more votes out of 3,230 cast on Tuesday in the Fifth Ward.

Outgoing Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who did not seek re-election, on Wednesday questioned the propriety of unions' endorsing City Council candidates.

Nauser said it concerns her when public-sector unions get involved in the election process. "No matter what party they are supporting, they are supporting someone who is in charge of their salaries and benefits," she said. "That money comes from the taxpayers, and that is what concerns me.”

David Leuthold, professor emeritus in political science at MU, said getting involved in a campaign is a good idea for anyone interested in the outcome of the election — including employee unions.

“One of the problems we have is that not many people get involved in elections,” Leuthold said. “If the city employees or the Chamber of Commerce want to be involved in a campaign, and each have their own ax to grind, then it’s not a problem to do that.”

Both the chamber and the firefighters union have distinct preferences about policy that affect their interest in the election, Leuthold said.

Last year was the first time the chamber endorsed City Council candidates — all of whom won their April election bids: Daryl Dudley in the Fourth Ward, Gary Kespohl in the Third Ward and Mayor Bob McDavid.

The Columbia Professional Firefighters and the Columbia Police Officers Association typically endorse issues, but last year they both endorsed McDavid.

Nauser said she was surprised by the outcome of this year’s Fifth Ward election. Ehrhardt, Nauser said, "had all of the endorsements, but she won. I don’t know if that says anything about endorsements or not.”

Brad Fraizer said the firefighters got involved in this year’s campaign to ensure public safety remains a priority of the council.

Fraizer said his organization has no second thoughts about making T-shirts and signs, and going door to door on Ehrhardt's behalf. He said the association would evaluate future City Council contests,  gauge the political atmosphere at the time and employ the same process it did this election season.

“We recognize that every big decision, from the number of trucks to the kind of equipment, are made by politicians or someone appointed by politicians,” Fraizer said. “The need for public safety is not going away, and we will not let safety be compromised.”

Nauser said that after last year's mayoral election she believed too many people began to think endorsements by groups were the key to success.

Nauser said she encourages private trade organizations that have nothing to do with taxpayer funding, such as the Chamber of Commerce, to get involved in elections, but she said she was skeptical about whether public-sector groups should do the same.

“I was sad to see our political system here in Columbia taking on some of those endorsements,” Nauser said. “I wish that wouldn’t have happened as much as it did.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley said he feels a political endorsement from a union and the voting decisions of individuals who belong to those unions are not necessarily connected. “It does not, in fact, say everyone in that union or group has to vote that way,” he said.

McDavid voiced a similar view, saying unions have the right to express their opinions, calling it a First Amendment issue. “It’s a matter of free speech,” he said on Friday. “If you want to give an opinion, go for it.”

He also said endorsements can go both ways and that citizens are smart enough to make their own choices at the polls.

“Citizens can use it any way they want to,” McDavid said. “They can use it positively; they can use it negatively.”

First Ward Councilman-elect Fred Schmidt said throughout his campaign that he didn't believe organizations of any kind should give endorsements because not all members agree on a specific candidate.

“If I was president of one of these unions, I would be discouraging endorsements,” he said. “I think it’s a conundrum.”

It is legal for city employees to campaign in municipal elections, but there are rules for how and when such campaigning can be done.

“You can’t campaign on our time, while you are on duty or in uniform,” said Margrace Buckler, human resources director for the city. "We cannot tell you that you can’t have a political opinion, but you cannot try to talk to people while you are doing your duty.”

Schmidt said organizations such as the firefighters union and other union groups have the right to look out for the best interests of their members, but volunteering on behalf of a candidate is no different than contributing money to a political campaign.

Nauser said politics in Columbia is different than it has been in the past.

“I think this trend of endorsements will continue in future elections,” Nauser said.  “I don’t see it stopping now that it has been out the door, and I don’t think the outcome of this election will change that philosophy.”

Schmidt, though, said he doubts endorsements will become a regularity in municipal politics.

“I’m going to guess not,” he said. “The danger is that when an association starts to say, ‘Well this particular election affects my constituents,' pretty soon all politics affect everything and then you’re endorsing everything. I’m going to guess, and history will bear out, that this will be less important as time goes on."

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