CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Conflict is a factor in every family, but the West Virginia Family Values political action committee is taking that to a new level.
The labor- and trial lawyer-backed PAC has built up a war chest of $2,707,754.36 and spent $2,267,423.78, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
In the past week, Republican candidates have complained about radio ads focusing on a Jackson County sex offender case. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael testified in the case, but it’s being used to target other Republicans as well. State Sen. Chris Walters filed a lawsuit over it.
West Virginia Family Values’ influence on this year’s West Virginia election has been so great that another political action committee, one supported by the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, has put out its own ad to directly challenge it:
“Beware, West Virginia. A new group is taking advantage of your kindness by calling itself the West Virginia Family Values PAC.”
Making waves like this isn’t a coincidence. West Virginia union leaders — who don’t directly run the political action committee, but whose organizations support it financially — say they entered this election cycle determined to reverse the Republican majorities that took over both houses of the Legislature two years ago.
“I would call it unprecedented here in West Virginia,” said Josh Sword, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. “We want to make sure every citizen in West Virginia knows what has happened to them the last two years.”
Labor organizations are particularly angry about the right-to-work law and prevailing wage repeal passed by the Legislature this past session. They say the changes will result in lower wages and benefits and more workers — particularly in construction — being brought in from elsewhere.
AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue says he took those issues personally. Perdue said he has benefited from union membership over a 44-year career and that the current legislative majorities have threatened that way of life.
“They made it a personal attack on me,” Perdue said in an interview Thursday.
Perdue said unions are targeting Republicans down the line, starting with gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole, who was Senate president when the prevailing wage repeal and right-to-work bills passed.
“I have labeled Bill Cole as my enemy, and my job is to make sure he is not elected governor.”
The unions contend that Cole was the chief advocate for bills like right-to-work that had passed earlier in other states with Koch brothers support. When Cole appears today in campaign events with Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin — another recent-right-to-work state — union members say they’ll have a presence outside.
“It was all driven by promises of outside money coming in to get him elected governor,” Sword said. “Cole connected the dots.”
This is probably the biggest union effort in an election year since the mid-1990s when West Virginia privatized its workers compensation system. In 1996, unions targeted 62 legislators who had voted to reform the workers comp system. Only three of the lawmakers targeted by labor that year were defeated.
This year, Sword said West Virginia labor unions had to fight by the election system as it is, forming West Virginia Family Values to raise money and fight against the Republican majority.
“We’re forced to do what we have to do,” Sword said. “We have to fight back.”
Sword continued, “We’re not ashamed of the fact we’re spending a considerable amount of money to make sure citizens of the state understand what’s happened to them the last two years.”
West Virginia Business and Industry Council decided to cut its own advertisement in opposition to West Virginia Family Values because, its leaders contend, the very name of the group is misleading.
“I do think it’s somewhat unusual,” said Chris Hamilton, president of the business and industry council. “But it’s also unusual for a band of trial lawyers and labor bosses who, instead of saying ‘We’re the trial bar or labor organizations’ — to come out and say the organization they’re hiding behind goes by the name West Virginia Family Values.”
Hamilton went on to say, “I think it was adopted to intentionally mislead the general public and our voters. They’re out there with ads that are very deceptive and dark and attack-oriented against a number of individuals who are serving these districts with a lot of pride and honesty.”
West Virginia Family Values got its name — and its focus — because its supporters believe they’re protecting a way of life, said Lou Ann Johnson, political director for the political action committee and a former staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
“Family values to a lot of people represents being able to have a job where you’re paid decent wages to raise your family,” Johnson said. “If you can’t make a wage with which to raise a family, it’s hard to keep a family together.”
From the beginning, Johnson said, West Virginia Family Values and its supporters had a plan that included radio and digital advertising, an active field program, phone banking and door-to-door visits.
The lightning rod has been the advertisements focusing on Carmichael’s testimony in the Jackson County sex offender case — and attempts to link that to other Senate candidates in West Virginia.
“We feel like that’s a relevant question to ask the Republican candidates who are running with him,” Johnson said. “If they prevail, he may end up being Senate president, lieutenant governor. Is it acceptable? Is it something you support or not?”
Ryan Weld, a state delegate from Brooke County who is running for a Senate seat, is one of the Republicans who has been targeted by West Virginia Family Values. He’s puzzled by attempts to connect him with Carmichael’s court testimony.
“These people don’t want to debate policy because they know we have the facts and figures,” Weld said.
“So they have to try to inflame people. They have to do it with emotions about child molesters. It’s pretty sad, and I’m embarrassed for the candidates they support. Do they stand with this group called family values, which obviously has no values, or do they stand alone on their own record?”
The actual issues of prevailing wage and right-to-work have taken a backseat in the ad campaigns, contended Bryan Hoylman, president of the West Virginia chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. Hoylman wrote an op-ed commentary in the Charleston Daily Mail about West Virginia Family Values: “Super PAC confuses voters.”
“It’s all because of prevailing wage, right-to-work — some of these things they want to return to,” Hoylman said. “What’s interesting is they’re not using any of that in their messaging. The reason is, they probably couldn’t win if they were using messages they really care about.
“They’re not talking about tort reform. They’re not talking about right-to-work. Because those issues have polled pretty favorably in West Virginia. They’re not going to get very far if they want to repeal it.”
Hoylman contends what remains of labor influence in West Virginia rides on this election.
“Let’s say things go great for Republicans,” he said. “The unions and the trial lawyers don’t have much left in West Virginia. This is kind of their swan song if they don’t come through.”
Over the next couple of weekends, labor organizations and their supporters will get together for rallies Saturday in Huntington, Sunday in Elkins, the following Saturday in Charleston and then the following Sunday in Morgantown.
The rallies will focus on the prevailing wage repeal, the $70 million borrowed from the Rainy Day Fund to balance the state budget, funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, mine safety laws and charter schools.
“What we want to do is talk to people about what’s going on in the state and about right-to-work and things of that nature,” said Pat Jack, president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Lewis, Upshur, Barbour, Randolph and Pendleton counties.
Jack said the unions need to stand together to counter the influence of big business on West Virginia politics.
“It bothers me that so much money is being spent on this state for out-of-state purposes,” Jack said. “I hate to say corporations but it is. If you look at the money being brought into this state just to elect people friendly to corporations, I want to ask why.”