November 2005, IBEW Journal
Whoever coined the phrase “all politics is local” must have taken a trip to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a city of 4,700 on the Ohio River, home to the largest riverboat casino in the nation.
Last year, voters in this Republican-dominated county helped elect Democratic Mayor Bill Cunningham (Photo Left), retired business manager of Cincinnati, Ohio, IBEW Local 212, and a city council of Democrats, stacked with union members.
The Lawrenceburg native and son of an IBEW member, he completed his inside wireman apprenticeship in 1968, served in the U.S. Army and then became active in Local 212. He was appointed business agent in 1988 and was elected business manager in 2001.
“My experience as business manager prepared me for the job of mayor,” says Cunningham. There is no better training ground than a local union, he says, for dealing with the roller coaster of expectations and frustrations of constituents.
Getting members involved in the political process is integral to both jobs; so is fund-raising. “We took Local 212’s COPE contributions from $2,000 per year to over $100,000 and we saw the results,” he says. “Now every candidate running for office shows up at Local 212’s yearly picnic.”
Republicans in Lawrenceburg, 90 miles from both Indianapolis, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, in “red” Dearborn County, had some compelling reasons to stray from their party’s line. They handed Cunningham 60 percent of their votes on Election Day.
First, there was Cunningham’s record as a hands-on city councilman who helped negotiate a revenue-sharing agreement with the casino’s owners. That program generates enough cash to give each Lawrenceburg graduating high school senior up to $1,800 per year to attend college or a certified apprenticeship program. Then there was a cornucopia of public improvements, parks, buildings and opportunities for growth.
If those reasons weren’t enough, there was Cunningham’s visibility and the sheer energy that drove him to knock on every door in the city during the mayoral primary and again during the general election campaign. He drew strength from his IBEW roots, the very source of his original plunge into the political arena.
Cunningham got involved in city politics ten years ago, when he spoke to his city council representative about securing a prevailing wage agreement for local building trades for the proposed casino project. She advised him to run for office. He ran a successful campaign for city council, served a four-year term and then left public office. Later, when another councilwoman resigned, Cunningham was appointed to serve out her term.
As he watched the counterproductive bickering between city leaders, Cunningham was convinced to run for mayor to unite the city’s leaders and put the interests of its residents first.
Cunningham spent $20,000 on his campaign, all contributed by organized labor, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents workers and retirees from the city’s once dominant distillery industry.
“I enlisted people that I could depend on and I campaigned hard,” he says, noting that labor’s help with get-out-the-vote efforts were critical to his success. Cunningham’s wife, Rita, a social worker, and daughter, Tara, a special education teacher and member of the American Federation of Teachers, attended meetings and social events on his behalf.
Argosy Casino, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, constructed by local building trades.
Cunningham went door to door twice during the campaign, promising to stay accessible to constituents and to involve them in the city’s plan for the future.
“I got support in areas where I didn’t expect it and lost in areas that I expected to win,” he says. Cunningham’s victory put him at the helm of a city that had gone through an extreme transformation.
Once called “Whiskey City” because of its six unionized distilleries (only one still operating), Lawrenceburg had become “Casino City” almost overnight. In 1995, Dearborn County voters approved the casino by a vote of 52 to 48 percent, with organized labor campaigning hard for its development.
Lawrenceburg’s Argosy casino hosts 5 million visitors a year and has a monthly take of about $120 million. The riverboat’s patrons fill up an adjacent hotel and a five-story parking garage. The gambling complex, which employs 2,500 workers, is currently undergoing a $250 million expansion that will include a new Home Depot-sized riverboat and a 1,600-car parking garage.
Prior to the casino’s opening, Cunningham worked with attorneys to negotiate the lucrative revenue-sharing program with casino owners to ensure that the city and its citizens were not left in the dust while the casino rolled up the profits.
Mayor Bill Cunningham and Lawrenceburg, Indiana, City Council are pictured, from left, Dennis Carr, Mario Todd, Jackie Stutz (clerk treasurer), Cunningham, Mick McNimery, J.R. Holdcraft and Bill Bruner.
Last year, Cunningham and the Lawrenceburg City Council renewed the agreement, which returns $70 million a year to the city, for another five years.
Lawrenceburg has hit a jackpot of public projects that would be the envy of a larger city. A new campus for Indiana Community College is under construction. The city has built an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a $600,000 football field, a skateboard park and a $4.7 million firehouse. Revenue-sharing supports an adult center and a bond bank that loans money to local businesses and start-up enterprises at a low interest rate. The college scholarship program, administered by a foundation, issues $500,000 in grants per year.
Out of the $200 million spent on construction in Lawrenceburg, Cunningham said 99 percent has gone to union contractors.”
“Whiskey City” is gone. As its distilleries shut down one by one, a manufacturing-based economy has been supplanted by gaming tables and service businesses. Such transitions are always painful but Lawrenceburg is still a union city. Union traditions are so strong that a local nonunion grocery store shut down because locals wouldn’t patronize it. The casino’s workers are represented by the Seafarer’s International Union. Lawrenceburg’s 97 municipal workers are represented by the International Association of Machinists (IAM).
As mayor, Cunningham bargains across the table from the IAM. “We have had some disagreements, but mostly we work things out,” he says. Health insurance costs employees only $1 per year. Their pay ranges from $15 per hour to $22. Workers with the most senority are entitled to annual six-week vacations. “I believe that if people are treated well, they work well,” he says.
While he describes the mayor’s job as rewarding, Cunningham always feels the subtle pressures of a place where everyone knows your name. “In a big city, people don’t expect that their leaders will always look out for them personally, but in a small one like Lawrenceburg, residents ask why you didn’t hire their son or daughter, reminding you that they once knew your father.”
He can’t please everyone, but Cunningham is always open to suggestions and criticisms. Each month, on a Saturday, he opens city council chambers to the public to meet with citizens on issues ranging from “dogs running loose to tax rates.” He says, “I’m out on the streets a lot and my phone number is listed.” Cunningham, who makes $40,000 as mayor, has supported a raise for city council members, but not for himself.
The success of Mayor Cunningham and Democrats in Lawrenceburg has run counter to the trend in surrounding Dearborn County. Once a Democratic stronghold of 17,000, the county has grown to 50,000 with an influx of former residents of ultra-conservative Hamilton County, drawn by new housing developments. Cunningham said he urges fellow IBEW members to throw their hat into local politics, “at any level, from school board to zoning board, to mayor.”
He says “grassroots politics can be applied anywhere. Stay involved. You will be surprised at the changes that you can make, but it takes a lot of work,” Cunningham adds, “Make certain that you have supporters who will help. Then get out on the streets and talk to the people.”
IBEW In Public Office
“Those politicians are all the same!” It’s a refrain we’ve all probably said at one time or another. Some union members, however, have done something about it.
A growing number of union members, with IBEW in the lead, have run successfully for public office, learning valuable lessons about how to win and make a difference in their communities.
In this new series, “IBEW in Public Office,” the Journal talks to some of our members about their elected positions so that others may repeat their triumphs as they seek to improve the lives of working families.
Leaders Praise Cunningham’s
“Bill and his city council have made endless infrastructure improvements that will serve the citizens of Lawrenceburg for the next several generations.”
Republican State Senator Johnny Nugent, 27-year veteran legislator
“I worked with Bill when I was city attorney for Lawrenceburg. I was particularly impressed by his financial knowledge which he gained as a trustee for his local’s pension fund. Bill isn’t overwhelmed by big numbers. His experience with the local also makes him a gifted manager.”
“Bill Cunningham is a special guy, the kind of good citizen who is at every city event and shows up early each Memorial Day to set up the sound system.”
Republican Bob Ewbank, Attorney for Dearborn County, Indiana