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Bera Angers Organized Labor Over Fast-Track Trade Vote

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Ami Bera won re-election by a razor-thin margin in the most expensive House race in the nation in the last election cycle. The honeymoon period was short and the attacks on him have been harsh. Though he’s a Democrat, the attacks are actually not coming from the right, but from the left, because he supports the president’s trade policy. The AFL-CIO is spending tens of thousands of dollars on TV ads lambasting that position.

Bera brushes aside the attacks.

"From my perspective, we may have a policy disagreement but I’m always going to put people in front of politics and this is a good TPA bill, good TAA bill, it’s good for my district," says Bera.

While the ads are intended to intimidate Bera into changing his position, the second-term congressman says he is not intimidated because the deal will help the Sacramento area. 

"For my district economy and California’s economy, agriculture and technology are booming," says Bera. "Those votes depend on exports markets and California is going to benefit greatly."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was on Capitol Hill to lobby against the president’s trade proposal. He says he has no regrets about the ads.

"I mean if they’re accurate ads the public's entitled to know what their representative did," says Trumka. "We try to do that with every representative. We try to tell them when they voted in their interest and when they voted against their interest.”

Trumka isn’t denying that labor is trying to make an example out of Bera. 

"You either stand with working people or you stand with corporate entitlements, that’s the vote," says Trumka. "And those that stand with corporate entitlements are members we’ll know." 

Democrats aren’t exactly running to Bera’s defense. Senator Dianne Feinstein voted in favor of the bill that Bera is being punished for supporting, but she refuses to defend him. 

Even Bera’s friends aren’t rushing to his side. California Democrat Brad Sherman is a vocal opponent of the trade deal, but he won’t criticize labor.

"Labor is labor, they have members, they have to do what they think is the best for them," says Sherman. "Ami is a friend and I can think of other things I would prefer labor to do."

But the labor campaign is angering some Democrats. Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond opposes the trade deal but has threatened to vote for it to spite labor.

"I think labor is wrong, I think it’s despicable," says Richmond. "Just because you helped someone get elected you don’t get to vote the machine. People should vote their conscious and what they believe in and I think labor is going to have repercussions to pay for."

This isn’t the first time labor has tried to force Democratic lawmakers into line over trade legislation. Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar was targeted by labor in 2005.

"The difference between a liberal Democrat and a cannibal, according to President [Lyndon B. Johnson] was that cannibals don’t eat their own," says Cuellar. "And we have this situation that you’re going after your own."

Cuellar says the Democratic Party must be open to differences if it wants to regain control of either the House or the Senate.

"We might have disagreements but keep in mind that you never burn your bridge," he says. "Some people are literally acting like this is the last vote ever to be taken by Congress and it’s not the last vote we’re going to take. Don’t burn your bridge because tomorrow will be another day and you’ll be asking me for help."

But Bera has one strong ally: President Barack Obama.

"We’ve certainly chatted at the White House and again as I’ve told the President, I was going to give him my support in negotiating the deal," says Bera.

The Democratic Party is now watching to see if a second-term president can bring enough clout and money to Bera’s aide for him to win an expected primary challenge in the next election.   

 Ami Bera

Matt Laslo

Contributing Washington DC Reporter

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006. He has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, including Capital Public Radio.  Read Full Bio