By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Democrat Linda Coleman took to the podium of the annual convention of the North Carolina state government workers' union this month, after the longtime state employee was lauded in a video as its champion when she served in the state House.
"Let me say thank you to all of you for all of the hard work that you did to make my primary election a success," Coleman told fellow members of the State Employees Association of North Carolina at a Greensboro hotel ballroom, which was showered with dozens of green Coleman campaign placards.
The association didn't just support Coleman's primary bid. It essentially carried her to victory.
SEANC and its national parent flooded the election with nearly $400,000 to back Coleman with television and radio commercials, mailers, signs and communications with its 55,000 members. The amount matched what was spent by the campaign of primary opponent Eric Mansfield and dwarfed the $59,000 that Coleman had spent on her own campaign through June 30, according to documents filed with the State Board of Elections.
Now, SEANC and the Service Employees International Union look poised to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more to support Coleman as she takes on Republican Dan Forest in the general election. SEANC's decision to endorse neither Democrat Walter Dalton nor Republican Pat McCrory for governor likely means more money will be freed up for candidates such as Coleman, whom it endorsed.
SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope wouldn't say how much it would spend on Coleman this fall in an independent expenditure campaign, but he said his group and others would need several hundred thousand dollars to be effective.
"It's going to be significant," Cope said. "We want to show our commitment to Linda. She's always been with us and our issues."
Mansfield's campaign and now Forest have questioned what they consider a big-money power play by the unions to influence who becomes the second-ranking official in the executive branch. At the very least, they've said, the money leaves the impression Coleman would be beholden to the groups and their viewpoints.
"The question in my mind is what does the employee association stand to benefit from in this investment?" Forest said in an interview. "There's got to be some return on this investment."
Coleman, 63, has been a state worker for more than 30 years and was most recently Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's state personnel director before stepping down to run for office. Coleman said in an interview she's her own person and hasn't always agreed with SEANC. While personnel director, Coleman said she opposed passage of a regulatory reform package supported by the association.
"They should not expect that because you get an endorsement that you're just going to roll over," she said.
Coleman endeared herself to SEANC when she delayed the state budget process during her first legislative term in 2005 to lobby for a higher raise for state workers.
"Linda's been our only voice and she's done so much for state employees," said Gail Reardon, 63, of Garner, a former Central Prison employee who attended the Greensboro convention.
Coleman could become the highest-ranking Democrat in state government come January should McCrory win. While the lieutenant governor has few inherent powers, the person in the job almost always is considered a future candidate for governor.
"She's going to be the de facto head of the party if the polls are correct," Cope said.
While North Carolina has the nation's lowest rate of union membership, SEANC has been flexing its muscles in state politics, thanks in part to its affiliation with SEIU. North Carolina remains one of only two states where state law expressly bars collective bargaining for state employees.
SEANC's efforts to support Coleman also means the group will have a strong Democratic friend on its side should its new collaboration with the Republican-led Legislature sour. GOP legislative leaders found an ally with SEANC the past two years when they passed changes to the state employee health insurance plan and approved employee raises for the first time in four years.
SEANC leaders are "strategic in how they position themselves," said Rick Kearney, a political science professor and labor relations expert at North Carolina State University.
But SEANC learned an expensive lesson after it endorsed the Perdue, a Democrat, in 2008. SEIU gave more than $1.1 million to the state Democratic Party in the final weeks of the campaign that ultimately helped Perdue. But relations between Perdue and SEANC cooled after Perdue became governor.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed are coming to North Carolina in the coming weeks to raise money for Forest. While individuals are limited to giving him $4,000, SEANC and SEIU can spend unlimited amounts on Coleman as long as they aren't coordinating the spending with Coleman's campaign.
Coleman said she's thankful for the union support but is raising her own campaign funds and downplays the unions' role in her primary victory. She said she knows nothing about whether SEANC or SEIU will spend money to support her in the fall.
"I cannot assume anything," Coleman said.
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