Monday, January 14, 2019

Beto bitter over El Paso police-union fight: Here's why that's okay

Grits must admit, I thought a bit more highly of Beto O'Rourke after reading this feature from The Intercept detailing his fraught relationship with the police union in El Paso when he was on the City Council.
Police unions have increasingly found themselves in conflict with progressive Democrats in cities across the country, and are notorious for defending even the worst officers on the force against charges of assault or murder. Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s spokesperson, said that when he relayed The Intercept’s inquiry to O’Rourke, O’Rourke’s first memory of the fight was that police were demanding a provision that would give officers a 48-hour window after a police shooting before they would have to answer an investigator’s questions. That provision is indeed in the contract; O’Rourke’s remarks at the time, however, were focused on officer compensation and El Paso’s strapped budget.
I'm glad O'Rourke is aware of the 48-hour-interview issue. But it sounds like he wants to divert attention from his earlier focus on opposing police-wage hikes, perhaps because the theme might resonate negatively with the broader union movement. That's understandable.

Given that O'Rourke was on the city council at the time, however, it was his job to worry about budgets at the height of the Great Recession, which is when this debate took place in 2010. And for many reasons, both having to do with competing ideologies of the moment and century-old union history, picking a fight with police unions isn't the same as picking one with the broader union movement.

The politics of justice advocacy and police unions are fraught, as the Intercept article does a good job of conveying. It's a longstanding tension, which extends not just toward progressives but the broader labor movement.

As Ron DeLord, founder of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, recounted in an interview with Grits last year, police unions split from what was then the American Federation of Labor (the CIO didn't exist yet) after the AFL refused to back the Boston police union when they struck in 1919. The cops' history as indifferent strikebreakers earned their entreaties a lukewarm if not hostile reception, and police unions have existed outside the mainstream union movement ever since.

To this day, there's little solidarity between police and the traditional labor movement. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker decided to bust public-employee unions, for example, police and fire were exempted. Same here in Texas.

Beto's campaign might have pointed out that, in Austin, progressive activists recently engaged in a bitter, year-and-a-half fight over the capital city's police contract, and the terms of debate were as much about economics as social justice debates. Indeed, according to movement leaders, focusing on limiting officer wage growth earned advocates a seat at tables to which they otherwise wouldn't have been invited. The final contract that replaced one voted down by Council freed up about $10 million per year for the city to spend on other stuff.

In the December episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, I sat down with the two lead union negotiators for Austin's police contract, Ron DeLord and Chris Perkins, and Chas Moore, the leader of the Austin Justice Coalition, who led the reform campaign. Here's the audio from our full conversation.

Campaign Zero co-founder Sam Sinyangwe with
Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore
Moore, who is one of a new crop of impressive, young Texas civil-rights leaders, was quite open about how AJC used the economic issues that concerned O'Rourke as a city council member to garner support for justice reforms about which city officials wouldn't otherwise have cared. He told me:
I don't think a lot of activists or organizers would like this, but I think ... So what we wanted to do was win, right? We didn't care if you cared about our issue or our cause, we wanted to win. And we knew in order to win, the best way was to talk about money. Right? I agree 110 percent with Ron on that. All but ... one, maybe two council members cared about the transparency and accountability. But for the most part, out of that 11-0, vote, most of those people probably cared about money. 
Instead of talking about, "stop killing unarmed black people and stop mistreating people," we just had to talk about the money, and that's how we get the strange bed fellows of Sierra Club and Save Our Springs and ... All these things that really didn't make sense when you talk about it. 
We had the Parks people come out and talk about, "don't pay the cops." ... For us, it was like "what's the road to win," right? That was a huge part of it. Something we agree with. But that's not the most important thing for, at least my organization. We do care more about the transparency and accountability.

The money factor, which is equally important, was the most important to the people that ultimately made that decision.
Police unions and Movement for Black Lives activists like Moore are natural enemies, even if in Austin they were able to communicate well enough to negotiate, and even sit in Grits dining room for a post-mortem after the fight is over.

Similarly, the police union playbook for how to react when wage demands are refused or their members engage in misconduct can make them natural enemies of city councils as well. Their approach is to wrap themselves in the flag, find someone to blame, then aggressively attack, all the time. It usually works. But it's not a make-friends-and-influence-people kind of approach. It's a power-concedes-nothing-without-a-demand approach, as DeLord remarked, quoting Frederick Douglass.

DeLord's not joking when he quotes Douglass. He was a rabble-rousing police-union innovator in his youth, adopting confrontation tactics first developed to empower the poorest of the poor, but using them on behalf of the armed agents of the state. Today, his books are treated as textbooks among the English-speaking police-union movement globally, exporting those approaches to great effect.

O'Rourke appears to have received the full-blown, Saul-Alinsky-inspired police-union bullying experience, and it left him questioning how much value exists in having cops as the only strong labor interest among public employees in a right-to-work-for-less state like Texas. I don't blame him for that. Spend much time on these issues on any side but theirs, and those questions naturally present themselves.

Grits doesn't begrudge police-union leaders trying to get the most for their members. But as evidenced by the lingering bitterness of a potential Presidential contender at the uber-hostile, Alinskyite tactics he was subjected to, their approach can make enemies. That can come back to haunt you. When you're a bully, payback's a bee-yach.

Finally, fwiw, Grits considers Beto O'Rourke a more attractive U.S. Senate candidate in 2020 than a presidential contender. That's in part because I've wondered about his ability to manage complex institutions of government, and in part because, as a senate candidate, I think he'd help make the whole Democratic ticket competitive in Texas. (Our Texas pols seem to behave more responsibly when they're worried about general elections instead of primaries.)

On the first part - managing institutions - though only a small glimpse at his record, this episode reported by The Intercept does give me some small confidence that he would embrace his responsibilities as a manager of government, separate and apart from political and ideological positions, and fight for the public interest zealously, even when it's hard. That's what those city-council-police-union fights are about.


Gadfly said...

I'm not looking for a "managerial" president myself. I'm certainly not looking for a ConservaDem managerial president.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

We must agree to disagree. The Presidency is, first and foremost, a job - the CEO of the executive branch of government. Elect someone incapable of running the government, and no one will run it. There must be a baseline level of competence. We've seen what happens when there's not.

Steven Michael Seys said...

I find it fascinating that a life-long Democrat can switch parties, take over the Republican party with a populist appeal and earn the vitriol of the people who once championed his agenda. But that's the way American politics works. That said, my hat's off to the best Democrat president the US has had in decades.

Gadfly said...

Oh, I want someone competent, don't get me wrong. But, if that's the foremost reason to sell Beto? Nahh. There are competent progs with better policies!

That said, this appears to be when Beto first started pushing pot legalization as a public official. That's primarily a state issue, of course, but, in the last Congress, he had a chance to help try to do something at the federal level ... and didn't.