With Leadership Changes On Horizon, What’s Next For Labor?
Throughout his two-terms, House Speaker Chris Donovan, a former labor organizer, maintained close ties with brothers and sisters in the union. Brendan Sharkey, the man likely to take his place, said Monday he intends to maintain that relationship.
Donovan did not seek re-election to his state House seat, choosing instead to run for an open seat in Congress. Last month, he lost the Democratic nomination to former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty, which means he’s in the process of transitioning out of his elected position.
By the end of the year, Donovan will hand his responsibilities over to Speaker-elect Sharkey, who has for the most part taken over the role of helping Democratic lawmakers get re-elected in November. He has also started hiring new staff members.
At a union rally on Monday, Sharkey said he has a history of standing by Donovan on labor-related issues.
“Obviously Chris devoted his entire life, to his credit, to labor and the labor effort and as majority leader, I stood right next to him in most issues that involved labor-oriented issues like the [State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition] agreement and like the education reform,” Sharkey said.
As he transitions into the speaker’s office, Sharkey said he expects to maintain those ties with labor. However, he noted there are some differences between his background and Donovan’s.
“I’m not a lifelong labor organizer, so obviously my skills on that front are not the same as Chris’. I actually own my own small business and I’m coming at it from a private-sector perspective, but also as a Democrat,” he said.
Motioning to a group of unionized utility workers gathered at the Capitol, Sharkey said, “As a Democrat, these are the folks we need to be protecting as best we can and they represent what I think the average middle class workers are concerned about.”
Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said Monday that Donovan had always been a friend to the labor community.
“Obviously it was an excellent relationship because Chris had a background in organized labor and came out of the labor movement. As he rose up through the ranks of the legislature he never abandoned his commitment,” Dorman said.
But even with Sharkey’s private sector background, Dorman said he wasn’t concerned about Donovan’s likely successor. Backgrounds aren’t as important as one’s fundamental beliefs about the place of unions in the economy, he said.
“The signs are there,” Dorman said, pointing to, among other things, Sharkey’s support of striking Red Cross workers earlier this year.
“I would expect a continuation of what we have already — a positive, open, respectful relationship. Brendan is a thoughtful and considerate legislator,” he said.
Reached Tuesday by phone, Donovan, who has maintained a low profile since the primary, said the same.
“Brendan has a good relationship with labor and we’ve worked together on those issues,” he said.
Donovan said he’s been spending his time concentrating on his remaining duties as speaker and hasn’t decided yet what he will do come January when it’s time to turn over the gavel.
“I’ve been talking with Brendan, talking with my staff,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to a big win for the Democratic caucus in November and Obama winning the election. We’re moving forward and I’m proud to be associated with Democrats.”
Four years ago when Donovan took over as speaker, the first thing he did was to offer former House Speaker Jim Amann a job as a senior adviser. At the time, Amann was working for the Multiple Sclerosis Society and running for governor. The public and his Democratic colleagues balked at the six-figure salary and the optics of the job offer, which would have Amann reporting to individuals he oversaw as speaker. Amann eventually declined the offer and went on to drop out of the governor’s race. He is now a lobbyist.
It was one of the few public missteps of Donovan’s tenure as speaker.
In his farewell speech on the House floor this past May, Sharkey told the chamber that Donovan always held firm in his beliefs and sought to make the state a better place.
“You never lost sight of the notion that, in a position of power, you have an opportunity to do a lot of good things, or a lot of selfish things. In everything that you’ve done it’s been the selfless that you’ve had in mind,” Sharkey said.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.
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