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Police officers, firefighters rethinking loyalty to GOP amid union crackdowns

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s crackdown on public union rights is now rippling through conservative strongholds in the state. Politico reports that distaste for Walker’s treatment of public employees and anger over the threat of lost benefits have led many firefighters and police officers in the state to reconsider their loyalty to the Republican Party.

Democrats could once count on the support of labor unions across the country, but a Republican emphasis on social conservatism in the second half of the last century sent millions of middle and working class union members across party lines. Amid recent evidence that social issues are not a top priority for the vast majority of American conservatives, pro-union voters are now flocking to the party that they feel better represents their economic interests.

Politico reports consternation among public safety union members in Wisconsin and beyond:

[W]hen Walker ordered the Capitol police to arrest Wisconsin demonstrators who refused to obey a curfew, they refused – and instead hundreds of them lined up with the demonstrators to show solidarity.

“We know what’s right from wrong,” one officer shouted into a bullhorn in the packed Capitol building. “We will not be kicking anyone out. In fact, we will be sleeping here with you!”

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich and his Republican allies decided against giving police and firemen special treatment, opting instead to try to appeal to their conservative instincts and win them over to the cause.

Since then, Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, said he’s had Republican members “apologize” for backing Kasich. “They are never voting that way again,” said Sanders, a Cincinnati fire department lieutenant.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) experienced the blowback firsthand when he attended a recent event for rising leaders in the New York fire department.

“These are down-the-line conservatives. They fully supported Bush in the Iraq war, in the war against terrorism, and on all the gut issues they were there,” King said. “Some of the guys I talked to said, ‘We stood with Bush on Queens Boulevard. Now, the Republicans have turned on us.’ ”

While the evidence that Politico’s Jeanne Cummings cites regarding party switches among police and firefighters is largely anecdotal, there is at least some hard data suggesting that economic concerns are driving a sea change among independent and right-leaning voters. Cummings reports that a Hart Research poll found that in November, 47 percent of American building trade union members identified as Democrats and 25 percent said they were Republicans. By January, before the Wisconsin collective bargaining meltdown had even begun, “the percentage of trade union members who called themselves Democrats jumped to 63 percent while the self-described Republicans fell to 18 percent.”

Similarly, this isn’t the first evidence of discontent with Republican politicians within the law enforcement community. The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association (WLEA), a union of state and local officers focused on collective bargaining, voiced opposition to Walker’s insistence that they arrest and perform crowd control on protesters back in February. A WLEA representative contacted by The American Independent at the time said he couldn’t comment on disputes with the governor’s office but stated that the union’s lobbyist was at work at the Capitol.

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