The question of which candidate for Congress in the 9th District has been or will be endorsed by Local 1733 of AFSCME and under what authority became even murkier Wednesday with the release of two lengthy statements — one by Janice Hooker Chalmers, president of the local, another by the incumbent congressman, Steve Cohen, who is opposed in the August 7 Democratic primary by lawyer Ricky Wilkins.
Wilkins’ campaign had announced Monday night that Local 1733 had agreed to endorse his candidacy and scheduled a Tuesday morning press conference at AFSCME headquarters on Beale for a formal announcement of the endorsement. On Tuesday morning, however, no AFSCME representatives were on hand for the press conference, which was held in front of the AFSCME building.
Wilkins went on to charge that Cohen, whom he characterized as a “bully,” had used tactics of “intimidation” to prevent union representatives from joining him at the press conference. He insisted, however, that he had been assured of endorsement.
Chalmers’ statement supports Wilkins’ position. She states that she and “other authorized Local 1733 union leaders recently met and agreed to endorse Ricky Wilkins in the Congress race.” She said, however, that she received a phone call from “our national office which caused me to cancel Local 1733’s participation in the press conference.” But she adds: “However it was my responsibility to bring this matter before the membership and this did not happen which caused another delay in the matter.”
That last statement would appear to be a reference to the fact, insisted on Tuesday afternoon by Local 1733 vice president Keith Johnson, that the union’s board or membership had not yet voted on the matter of endorsement in the congressional race and is scheduled to do so on Thursday night. Johnson, who said he was familiar with Cohen’s record of support of AFSCME, also vehemently denied that the union had been “bullied” and called Wilkins’ use of the term “a bad spin.”
Cohen’s statement was issued to account for his own inclusion of Local 1733 in a previously released list of those endorsing his candidacy for reelection, He said that a campaign staffer of his had called the local and asked for AFSCME to signify its support of Cohen by sending representatives of the union to take part in an endorsement ceremony held on June 27 at the IBEW union hall on Madison.
“They sent two representatives, Nelse Parker and Netra Weatherby, who stood behind me as we announced the endorsements from many labor unions," Cohen said, adding, “After the press conference, I thanked them for their support. Rather than correcting me, they told me I was welcome.”
The congressman went on to say, “AFSCME 1733 has always supported me, as has their national organization, which contributed the maximum amount ($5,000) in this primary and has already made a $1000 contribution for my upcoming general election. If there was a misunderstanding on our part, it is an entirely reasonable one.”
The two congressional contenders expressed different sentiments concerning union vice president Johnson’s announcement of the Thursday night vote by Local 1733’s board to decide on whom to endorse in the 9th District. Rick Maynard, a spokesman for Cohen, said, “It’s the union’s business. We’re comfortable with whatever they decide." Wilkins, however, was non-committal. “I don’t know what they're doing Thursday night,” he said.”I just know I already have their endorsement.”
The full statements by Chalmers and Cohen follow:
STATEMENT By JANICE CHALMERS, PRESIDENT OF AFSCME LOCAL 1733
I Janice Chalmers, President of AFSCME Local 1733, I am writing to clear up confusion and misinformation regarding Local 1733's endorsement in the 9th Congressional District race. For the record, I, along with other authorized Local 1733 union leaders recently met and agreed to endorse Ricky Wilkins in the Congress race. Following this meeting, it was determined that I contact Mr. Wilkins and advise him of the endorsement. I talked with Mr. Wilkins by phone and agreed to hold a press conference to announce the endorsement. I was prepared to join Mr. Wilkins in yesterday's scheduled press conference as announced in the July 28 press release. Early yesterday morning however, I found it odd to have received a call from our national office which caused me to cancel Local 1733's participation in the press conference and to question Cohen's endorsement which had been claimed without AFSCME Local 1733 knowledge. I refuse to deny that Local 1733 endorsed Mr. Wilkins and further refuse to deny that I confirmed the endorsement with him. However it was my responsibility to bring this matter before the membership and this did not happen which caused another delay in the matter. I refuse and am issuing this statement of the facts so that there is no more misinformation about how this developed. Any statement to the contrary by anyone connected to Local 1733 is false and does not reflect the facts as they occurred and developed.
STATEMENT BY CONGRESSMAN COHEN:
“On June 27th, a member of my campaign staff contacted AFSCME 1733 among many other labor unions for our June 30th press conference. She asked for their endorsement, and when they agreed, she invited them to send representatives to the June 30th labor press conference held at IBEW on Madison.
They sent two representatives, Nelse Parker and Netra Weatherby, who stood behind me as we announced the endorsements from many labor unions. I have attached a screen capture from the high definition video of that press conference, also posted to our campaign website.
After the press conference, I thanked them for their support. Rather than correcting me, they told me I was welcome.
Wilkins claims that 1733’s non-participation in his press conference is irrelevant. Is their participation in ours irrelevant too?
AFSCME 1733 has always supported me, as has their national organization, which contributed the maximum amount ($5,000) in this primary and has already made a $1000 contribution for my upcoming general election. If there was a misunderstanding on our part, it is an entirely reasonable one.
Thaddeus Matthews suggested on his show, with Ricky Wilkins by his side, that my endorsement by President Barack Obama might not be real. Ricky Wilkins adopted this stratagem, using the same talking point at his own endorsement press conference. Would he not be estopped (Logically be denied the right to use) the argument that no reasonable person would feign or prematurely announce an endorsement when he, questioned mine? I took the concrete steps of putting President Obama in advertisements and on billboards. Is it not hypocritical to suggest that he should not be questioned simply by virtue of having shown up at AFSCME Local 1733 headquarters?
As much as he may decry the attention he’s receiving for these matters, the attention he is receiving is because of the attention he sought. “
The congressman also included a screen capture (below) from the video of his June labor-endorsement ceremony, indicating one of the Local 1733 persons taking part.