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Public Employees' Pay, Benefits and Rights Become Campaign Issues

A year filled with teacher strikes and sexual harassment scandals has led candidates for governor to talk more about how they would treat their state's workforce.

Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon debating.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and his Democratic opponent in the Sept. 13 primary, Cynthia Nixon, engaged in a heated debate in August about whether public workers should have the right to strike.
(AP/Craig Ruttle)
Candidates for governor don’t typically talk about their plans for the public-sector workforce. Instead, they focus on hot-button issues like taxes, crime and the opioid crisis. 

The 2018 races are different. 

In a year when teacher strikes, sexual harassment scandals, pension crises and prison staff shortages have jumped into the headlines, HR issues are making their way onto the gubernatorial campaign trail across the nation. 

In August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic opponent in the Sept. 13 primary, Cynthia Nixon, fiercely debated whether public employees should have the right to strike. For Cuomo, the answer was an emphatic no.

"If you allow the public-sector unions to strike ... there would be no school! Children wouldn't be educated! It would clearly be mayhem," he said. 

To Nixon, the ability to strike is a fundamental tool that's needed at a time when unions are under continuous attacks. Referencing the strikes this year, she said, "Those teachers needed to be allowed to strike not only to feed their families and to get health benefits" but also to help schools that were so "deeply underfunded."

In Ohio, Republican nominee Mike DeWine has been touting his wellness plan for state employees. Equity in hiring and pay has become a campaign issue in California, where the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has pledged to pay men and women equally for the same job. His GOP opponent, John Cox, has said he supports that idea but not gone as far as Newsom's pledge.

Pension issues are percolating on the campaign trail in Colorado, Connecticut and Oregon. In Connecticut, where the pension system is one of the least-funded in the country, Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski wants to cut costs on the state's employee health plan and cut back on cost-of-living hikes for pension payments.

"You've got a bunch of people with pensions over $100,000 a year," he said recently.

In contrast, his Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, offers gentle reassurance to state workers.  

"We don’t celebrate the people who do the work in this state," Lamont said in a meeting with union activists in August. "As your governor, every day, I’m going to say … 'thank you for the work you do.'"

Teacher pay has been one of the most popular HR issues, with candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas all weighing in. It may even be the reason some candidates lose.

In Oklahoma, where a nine-day teacher strike ignited the Capitol this spring, six legislators who opposed a bill that increased teacher pay lost in the August primary. That’s a sign of potential trouble for Republican nominee Kevin Stitt, the owner of a private mortgage company, who has publicly stated on several occasions that if he were governor at the time, he wouldn’t have signed the teacher pay legislation.

Teachers’ pay isn’t the only compensation conversation. Across the board, public-sector employees’ pay is surfacing as an important campaign topic this year. In South Dakota, where a 3.4 percent unemployment rate is making it difficult for both businesses and governments to find and keep employees, "the candidates are hearing a lot about workforce because the business community is talking about this," says Laurie Gil, executive director of the state’s human resources department. 

"Compensation in every state is going to be an issue" in this year's 36 races for governor, says Byron Decoteau Jr., president of the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE). 

Workplace issues that affect both the public and private sector -- including paid family leave, minimum wage policies and LGBTQ discrimination -- are cropping up in campaigns in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho and Texas.

The #MeToo movement is also impacting state politics.

In South Dakota, Attorney General Marty Jackley lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem. The race was expected to be a dead heat, but shortly before the primary, Noem’s campaign ran an ad featuring a former employee in the attorney general’s office who was demoted and transferred after she filed a sexual harassment claim that was dismissed. She was eventually compensated $1.5 million by the state for the wages and benefits she lost and for mental anguish.

Jackley himself was not accused of misconduct, but the HR problems in his office dashed his hopes of becoming the next governor. Rep. Noem won the primary with a decisive 13-point victory.

This appears in the Management newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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