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March 2018

Every Vote Counts:
How Workers Are Shifting the Political Landscape

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"My vote won't make a difference."

You hear it every election season. Maybe you've even said it yourself.

But after what happened in Virginia's 2017 general election, none of us can ever say it again. One ballot, a single additional vote for a Newport News, Va., school teacher, would have ended GOP control of the statehouse and opened the door to a worker-friendly legislative agenda.

In fact, a lone ballot nearly did flip control until a three-judge panel controversially intervened, deciding its confusing markings showed intent to vote for the Republican. That left the 94th district race between Democrat Shelly Simonds and incumbent David Yancey tied at 11,608 votes apiece.

The race was decided in the end by random drawing, with election officials pulling Yancey's name out of a bowl, leaving his party in control of the House by a single seat. Had they drawn Simonds' name, the parties would have shared control, each with 50 seats.

"I think we'll be using this as an example from now until the end of time on how important it is to get out and vote," said Jeff Rowe, business manager of Newport News Local 1340.

"There's no doubt in my mind that there were one or two people who planned to vote for Shelly and for whatever reason didn't make it to the polls," Rowe said. "Their votes would have made a world of difference."

Even so, a 51-49 split in the House of Delegates represents epic gains in Virginia, where IBEW members were among thousands of volunteers knocking on doors, making phone calls and otherwise helping turn out voters last Nov. 8.

"I think that there was a reawakening since the 2016 election," said Rowe, who is also president of the Virginia Association of IBEW. "A lot of our members believe it's time for a change."

Before the election, Republicans controlled the House by a 66-34 margin, an imbalance that made it all but impossible for pro-worker bills to gain traction. The exhaustive grassroots effort to educate voters and get them to the polls cut the lopsided deficit to a single seat.

"I feel great about that," Rowe said. "Anybody who knows how the system works knows that you have to get legislation through subcommittees first, and now we're only a one-person minority. All we have to do is get one other person to agree with us and we can at least get it out of committee. In the past, we'd have to try to get two or three or more people to switch sides." Union legwork in Virginia also helped Democrats hold onto statewide offices, with voters electing Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and re-electing Attorney General Mark Herring. All 40 Virginia state Senate seats will be up for election in 2019.

Northam, who was previously the lieutenant governor, appointed Rowe to his transition team, along with other union representatives. Rowe's group addressed commerce and trade issues, meeting in Richmond twice in November and December.

"One of the direct, positive benefits of the election was to have a labor voice in those meetings to highlight the need for skilled trades training and put an emphasis on other things that are important to working people," Rowe said.

While union leaders served on various transition committees, Rowe said he was the only labor representative in his group. "I was the only person talking about this stuff. Had I not been there, it wouldn't have come up. We didn't have labor people, for instance, on Bob McDonnell's transition team," he said, referring to Virginia's most recent GOP governor, who served from 2010 to 2014.

Virginia isn't the only state where unions and workers declared victory in November and the months since.

In New Jersey, an army of union volunteers helped pro-worker candidates take back the governor's office and add to their majorities in the state House and Senate. More than a dozen IBEW members were elected and re-elected to state and local offices last November. New Jersey and Virginia are two of the only states with regular elections in odd-numbered years.

As one of his first orders of business, newly sworn-in Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Jan. 16 in support of equal pay for women. His Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, vetoed three equal pay bills during his two terms as governor.

Murphy's order bars managers in state government from asking job applicants about their previous salaries. He pledged to sign the rule into law and extend it to private businesses if the legislature sends a bill to his desk.

"We don't have to wait to make our economy stronger and fairer, to attack income inequality, and to protect and grow our middle class," Murphy said in his inaugural address.

Special elections are also boding well for workers' interests. In Washington state, a race to fill a late lawmaker's seat tipped the Senate to Democrats with a decisive victory by political newcomer Manka Dhingra. The Stand, a state labor news website, was optimistic in January on the eve of hearings about equal pay, safety for workers at the Department of Energy's Hanford hazardous waste site and other union-backed legislation.

"The legislative logjam may break loose," The Stand reported. "Since 2013, Republican control of the state Senate made that chamber Death Valley for many labor-supported bills that repeatedly passed the House but were killed without a Senate vote."

Against all odds, Alabama sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 25 years when voters elected former federal prosecutor Doug Jones in December. Political observers were nearly as stunned in January when a deep-red state Senate district in Wisconsin elected Democrat Patty Schachtner. She told the Associated Press her message is simple: "We need to be kind to people who are less fortunate and just help."

Her victory marked the 34th time nationwide that a state legislative seat had flipped from red to blue since the start of 2017.

But the big test comes this November. All 435 U.S. House seats and 33 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot, along with 36 governors' races and the majority of statehouse seats.

Critical judicial seats are also up for grabs. Thirty-two states will hold state supreme court elections in 2018, all but three of them on Nov. 6. Deciding who sits on the bench are some of the most important choices that voters make, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court illustrated in January.

The court struck down a partisan map of the state's congressional districts, which represented an election system rigged against working people, and ordered a new map in time for May's primaries. Although Pennsylvania is a swing state with more registered Democrats than Republicans, the gerrymandered map resulted in the GOP holding 13 of the state's 18 congressional seats.

The ruling gives pro-worker U.S. House candidates a fighting chance to represent Pennsylvania, and it could have ripple effects nationally. But it wouldn't have happened if voters hadn't gone to the polls in 2015 and elected three Democratic justices, for a 5-2 majority on the state court.

Leading up to all the state and local elections Nov. 6, voters across the country can expect to hear the story of how just one more ballot — one — cast for a pro-worker candidate in a Virginia House district could have changed everything.

"We beat that drum constantly — that every vote counts," Rowe said. "Now we've got proof."



Lobbying in Richmond, Va., in late January, Jeff Rowe, center, and Jim Avery of Newport News, Va., Local 1340, discuss workers' issues with state Senator Monty Mason, pictured at desk. Rowe is the local's business manager and also president of IBEW's Virginia State Association.


During the 2017 campaign, gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, center, campaigned in Virginia with former Vice President Joe Biden and Washington Local 26 President Tom Myers.