THE BLOG
11/18/2014 04:21 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

How Big Money Lost -- And Workers Won -- in Phoenix

There has been plenty of talk about the conservative landslide on election night, and much scrambling to find the few spots of blue on what appears to be the overwhelmingly red electoral map.

But there's an impressive victory for working people from these midterms that remains largely untold. On November 4, voters in deeply conservative Arizona chose to protect the retirement security of public workers -- despite an anti-pension campaign funded by an out-of-state Enron billionaire.

Proposition 487, which would have ended pensions for Phoenix firefighters, police officers, and thousands of other public workers and moved them into risky, privatized plans, went down in flames at the ballot box last Tuesday by over 10 percentage points. The initiative was orchestrated by a coalition of out-of-state, dark money forces who made Phoenix the centerpiece of a national campaign to gut public retirement benefits.

Nearly 75 percent of funds raised for the "Yes on 487" campaign came from one source: Enron billionaire John Arnold. Arnold has contributed more than $53 million to the fight to end pension benefits, influencing dozens of battles all over the country. He made Phoenix his main focus for the 2014 midterms, pouring over $1 million into the 487 campaign.

Despite Arnold's deep pockets, the 487 effort was flawed from the start. In June, actuaries contracted by the City of Phoenix issued a report which concluded that shifting away from the current public pension system would cost $350 million in upfront transition costs. In response, 487 supporters generated their own data to try and diminish the credibility of the report.

But they couldn't argue with real world examples from other states. West Virginia, Alaska and Michigan have all ended traditional pension plans in favor of 401(k)-style accounts. Thanks to high transition costs, those states have been plagued with exploding pension debt.

The real story of Phoenix's pension battle is the public workers who were front and center in the debate. Danielle Murphy, whose late husband -- a former Phoenix police officer -- was shot dead in the line of duty, said her husband's death benefit helped her family get through the most difficult time in their lives. Proposition 487 was so poorly written it could have ended those benefits. "Please don't abandon our public safety families," she asked voters. "Vote no on Prop. 487."

At the end of the day, voters rejected conservative dark money forces and stood with Danielle and her family.

It wasn't just Phoenix voters who backed workers at the ballot box. Four small states that typically are conservative -- Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota -- approved ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. That brings the total number to do so this year to 14.

Meanwhile, three major cities -- Trenton and Montclair in New Jersey and Oakland, California --passed measures that guarantee workers paid time off if they are sick. Voters in Massachusetts also approved a statewide initiative, making it the third state in the nation to pass a paid sick days law, after Connecticut and California (Oakland¹s initiative builds on California¹s existing statewide mandate).

These are enormous steps forward in the fight for workers and our communities. The results demonstrate that voters refuse to be manipulated by big spenders who inject hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance local measures that reflect their ideologies but would do significant harm to families other than their own.

The loss in Phoenix is the latest in a series of losses for Arnold and his partners. Arnold was a key player in efforts to end retirement security in Ventura California, CA, and the only financier of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's statewide ballot initiative that would allow California cities to reduce their pension benefits. The Ventura initiative was tossed out by the courts before it even reached the ballot. Mayor Reed ended his effort after the courts refused his plea for more favorable ballot language.

Arnold has also given up to $5 million to a Tea-party affiliated group called the Liberty Initiative Fund, which led efforts to end retirement benefits in Tucson and Cincinnati. Cincinnati voters rejected the initiative by even larger margins than Phoenix, 78-22. The Tucson measure was rejected by the courts, thanks to illegalities in the signature-gathering process.

This record of failure indicates that out-of-state special interests have no business crafting "solutions" for local problems.

Conservatives may rejoice over their newly-won control of both houses of Congress and victories in key gubernatorial races, but the 2014 elections show that voters do not favor right-wing policies that hurt workers. Anti-pension ideologues would do well to remember that before putting another ill-conceived initiative on the ballot.