03/08/2012 11:14 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

AFSCME, Obama-Allied Union, Faces Major Election Of Its Own

WASHINGTON -- The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, one of the most influential unions in the country, is poised to witness a hotly contested election at the top of its ranks this summer, waged in part over how to direct a $100 million campaign war chest.

On Friday, Danny Donohue, president of the largest AFSCME local in the country -- the 265,000 member-strong New York State Civil Service Employees Association -- will send a video to thousands of union members formally announcing his candidacy for president. Donohue has long been expected to launch a bid. On Friday, however, he will unveil as his running mate Alice Goff, president of AFSCME Council 36.

"Our union is predominantly female and so if we are really going to be representative of our members, it was more important that [Donohue's running mate] would be a woman," Goff said in an interview. "Now, I happen to be a minority, an African-American. That was fine too. But more important, I thought, was that one of the positions should be a woman."

Donohue's choice of Goff makes an already historic election all the more significant. The frontrunner to replace retiring AFSMCE leader Gerald McEntee is his right-hand man, Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders, who would be the union's first African-American president should he win.

"It would be historic," Saunders said in an interview. "I mean, I'm African-American but I'm also a trade unionist. I think it just bodes well for unions ... I think it's an exciting time for us."

But unlike most union elections, in which a handpicked successor customarily faces a symbolic challenger, this AFSCME election could end up hotly contested. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Donohue laid out a campaign strategy based upon reversing what he described as serial neglect of the interests and input of local chapters by union leaders.

"There are a number of problems across the country that we believe need to be addressed in the organization -– and Gerry has been there for thirty years, Lee has been at his side a lot of those years and Secretary-Treasurer for the last two –- and the question is, are we really better off?" he said. "And the answer comes back that the union needs to change. The last thirty years are not the next thirty years."

In the campaign arena, AFSCME remains a veritable juggernaut. The 1.6 million-member union has indicated it will spend $100 million in the 2012 elections, surpassing the total it spent in 2008. But the question is not whether the group can muster up the necessary resources, but rather how it chooses to distribute them.

"We may still spend the overall dollars, but we may not spend them where we are spending them now," Donohue said.

What this means with respect to the 2012 elections is not yet entirely clear. In his interview with The Huffington Post, Saunders stressed that he too viewed the labor landscape as a changing one. His number one priority, he added, was "to organize new members into our union." But he coupled that with a steadfast focus on the next elections. Already, AFSCME has been running ads in key states portraying former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, as out of touch.

Donohue, too, listed the re-election of President Barack Obama as an organizational priority. But he also spoke openly of siphoning off some money destined for federal elections for use in local races. His contention is that McEntee, and by extension Saunders, were late to recognize state-level attacks on collective bargaining rights, engaging with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and others only once it was too late.

"I'm not saying they don't do well in a crisis," Donohue said, adding that he had sounded the clarion call about collective bargaining rights coming under attack at the local level two years ago. "The problem is to avoid the crisis to begin with. We have to build an organization that a Governor Walker wouldn’t think about attacking."

Asked about that point, an AFSCME source who opposes Donohue's candidacy noted that unions in New York, Donohue's home base, have had their fair share of problems.

Saunders, meanwhile, hails from Ohio. Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association and a Saunders ally, praised his work against Senate Bill 5, a controversial anti-union law in the state that was ultimately repealed.

"When S.B. 5 started, AFSCME was on the ground and Lee was on the ground and I can't tell you how many numerous times they have been here for us. We were successful on our campaign and I think that was a direct result of their work," Mabe said. "All I can speak to is what happened here, and I know it was a raging success."

Local union chapters are currently in the process of electing delegates, which they will send to AFSCME's June convention in Los Angeles. The delegates, in turn, will choose the next president. Local chapters are currently in the process or electing delegates to the convention, who in turn will choose the next president.

Donohue said that he had decided to blast out his video to members in an attempt to encourage them to listen to all the candidates before they make a decision.

"There is no question that Gerry, when he first got elected, did a good job. Over the last few years the country has turned right and we are still trying to handle it the way we had in the past," he said.