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Nurses union becomes potent political force

San Francisco Chronicle, 11/24/10

by Carla Marinucci
San Francisco Chronicle
November 24, 2010

Politicians and political strategists looking ahead to the next election cycle are taking notice of an increasingly potent political force on the state and national scene - one that's overwhelmingly female and dressed in scrubs.
The Oakland-based California Nurses Association has made its mark by delivering some powerful political punches with a combination of entertaining theater and savvy strategizing.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has felt the wrath of the army of the union's protesters, most of them dressed in their trademark medical uniforms. So have California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle - both losers in high-profile races this year.

And the clout of the California Nurses Association and its 86,000 members was underscored by news this week that, as the largest nurses union in the country, it helped Nicandra Diaz Santillan, Whitman's undocumented housekeeper, come forward with her explosive story. The Mexican maid's emergence became a turning point in the 2010 California gubernatorial election, which Whitman lost in a landslide to Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

And in the same year, the union's national organization, National Nurses United with 155,000 members, took to the picket lines, helping to organize walkouts - or threatening them - in five states, including California.
Political evolution

Christa Kell, director of the pre-nursing program at St. Mary's College of Moraga, said the latest news dramatizes the political evolution of an organization that has been nothing short of stunning since she belonged to it in the 1970s.

"Back then, they were just fighting for basic rights," said Kell. But in the savvy political campaigns against Whitman and Schwarzenegger and the nurses' strong support for health care reform issues, "they've grown into a social movement ... and a very politically powerful one. And their effectiveness has been amazing."
Barbara O'Connor, retired professor of political communication at California State University Sacramento, said that is because "they have an army they can mobilize ... and it's hard not to relate to them."

The overwhelmingly female crowds of workers in scrubs who show up at CNA protests "have a rhetorical stature with voters," she said, "and their leadership has shown no reluctance to play hardball to get their point of view articulated."

The head nurse
Heading the organization is former Teamster organizer Rose Ann DeMoro, who has emerged as "one of the most prominent labor leaders in the country" in the last four election cycles, says Democratic consultant Chris Lehane.
Lehane, who worked with DeMoro this year on get-out-the-vote efforts and television ad campaigns in the drive to defeat Angle, said the union head is "a true believer when it comes to social-justice issues - and she plays to win."
"That's a rare combination," he said. "If labor is looking for a model of the future, just look over to Oakland."

DeMoro said that her membership - which has boomed five-fold since she assumed leadership in 1993 - will now look ahead as the next governor takes office, and continue to fight on critical issues.

"We fully understand that there are no 'political messiahs' who can right all wrongs," she said. But "we also know that Jerry Brown is a seasoned, compassionate intellectual with undeniable leadership qualities."

"He will, with our help, mobilize the population to regain, re-energize, and fully embrace the values of citizenship, health care, education and the creation of jobs that pay a wage that can build dreams - and not destroy them," she said.

Neither Rob Stutzman nor Tucker Bounds, both spokesmen for Whitman's gubernatorial campaign, could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Risking voter wrath
But critics say the union has been pushing the boundaries - and possibly risking the wrath of the voting public - with its activities.

"I don't think the nurses union is trying to be a thoughtful, measured voice in the political process," said Adam Mendelsohn, the former communications director for Schwarzenegger. "They may overplay their hand - but I'm not sure they care."

The Republican governor was relentlessly targeted by nurses after he pushed for reduced nurse-patient ratios and bragged he would "kick their butts" in a 2005 special election in which voters ended up rejecting four measures the governor had pushed for, including one that would have limited political spending by public employees unions.

Sacramento political consultant Patrick Dorinson said that while voters like nurses, they have less affection for powerful unions that represent them.

"The public is starting to tire of police, teachers, firefighters and nurses ... and being told they have to get what they want," he said. "They're starting to say, 'You're costing me money.' "

Political theater
But even critics acknowledge the attention-getting knack the California Nurses Association showed in the last election alone - when it mounted 50 events to target Whitman, after she pledged to slash the ranks of public employees by 40,000 and cut the state budget by $15 billion.

Union members, charging that Whitman's moves would result in devastating cuts to health care and social services, dogged her around the state - even outside her Atherton home - with a busload of costumed characters led by a fictional "Queen Meg."

O'Connor says the tactics were unquestionably successful.

"Maybe it's because they're mostly women ... (but) they're better at adapting and fighting; they do it in hospitals every day," said O'Connor.
The lesson from the governor's race for potential opponents, Lehane warns, is that "if you want to run for elected office, you want to think twice about being on the wrong side of the nurses."

E-mail Carla Marinucci at cmarinucci@sfchronicle.com.

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