Bonior to Take Bigger Union Role

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:05pm

The White House’s appointment of a top organized labor official to the administration last week will re-introduce a familiar face to Capitol Hill on contentious “card check— legislation and other union priorities: former House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.).

American Rights at Work, a union coalition, announced Friday that Executive Director Mary Beth Maxwell is leaving the organization to work under Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, an ex-Democratic House Member from California. Maxwell will be replaced by current Deputy Director Kimberly Freeman, who will serve as acting executive director.

As of press time, the White House declined to discuss the appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation.

Maxwell’s departure is expected to dramatically boost Bonior’s profile with the organization.

Bonior, who was former Majority Leader Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) chief vote counter, will retain his title as chairman of American Rights at Work but is expected to take a lead — albeit unofficial — role in running the organization.

“Their plan is that he will be more directly involved,— a union official confirmed privately.

Bonior and Freeman declined to comment. Little is known about Freeman, the group’s former communications director, whose biography on the American Rights at Work Web site states that for 13-plus years, she “has served the progressive community as a senior communications strategist and publicist.—

Her online biography states that she worked at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and was a consultant for Children’s Defense Fund, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Breast Cancer Coalition.

Bonior, however, is a well-known Capitol Hill commodity. After representing a Detroit-area district for 13 terms, he retired to run for Michigan governor in 2002. He lost in the gubernatorial primary to now-Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.).

A former probation officer, Bonior started American Rights at Work in 2003 before going on to manage former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) 2008 presidential campaign.

Bonior then returned in a more behind-the-scenes role to the group, a public relations go-between for the notoriously fractured labor movement that promotes itself as a central repository for policy issues and works with reporters on employment issues.

With Maxwell heading for the exits, the unnamed labor official said her departure is a mixed bag for unions, which now have another ally in the administration but may face uncertainty in the wake of Bonior’s return.

“We are going to have an advocate well-placed in the Labor Department,— the source said, but added, “in some ways, it causes us to regroup.—

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt’s former chief of staff, called Bonior “uniquely suited among former Members— to take such a prominent role in the labor movement during trying times.

After a successful multimillion dollar advertising blitz by business groups in recent months, unions are finding it difficult to secure the 60 Senate votes necessary to cut off debate on controversial card check legislation, which would make it easier for workers to unionize.

“He has the trust and relationship with a lot of Members and Senators,— Elmendorf said. “The thing about someone who was in the House when he was? Maybe even a majority of the Senate served in the House then.

“The whip’s job uniquely trains you to understand Members’ thinking and why they’re voting the way they do … he’s a straight shooter and a good pol.—

Included in the list of House Members-turned-Senators who may be soon fielding Bonior’s phone calls? Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), whose vote is considered crucial for the Employee Free Choice Act to pass.

Although Bonior’s vote-counting and leadership abilities are widely acknowledged, it’s difficult to work in politics for more than two decades and not create some enemies.

And the Wolverine State lawmaker is no exception, a former Hill staffer said.

“Anybody in leadership is not liked by everybody, but people always respect him — even if they differ on the issues,— the source said. “They’ll certainly get an honest count, and Dave has relationships with a lot of people.—