Card check makes '09 political debut in Virginia

The next governor of Virginia will have little impact on the heated debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, but that's not stopping one candidate from using the controversial issue to win headlines.

Former Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) has spent several weeks repeatedly bringing up the legislation, the so-called "card check" measure that would make it easier for unions to form. At a time when Virginia, like the rest of the nation, is hemorrhaging jobs, McDonnell casts card check as bad for businesses that need all the help they can get to begin rehiring employees.

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"It's a big issue right now. The bill has been introduced and obviously we've got a very close vote," McDonnell told The Hill on Friday.

Virginia is one of 22 states with a so-called "right-to-work" law on the books. The provision prohibits agreements between unions and businesses that require employees to pay of union dues.

"It's one of the things that's made us a very pro-jobs state," McDonnell said of right-to-work laws. "That's a real positive thing for us. These [businesses] are the people who create the jobs in Virginia. They said [card check] is going to hurt our ability to grow."

McDonnell, the Republican who will try to win the governorship for his part for the first time since 1997, is in need of an issue that can get him headlines. He has been drowned out in recent months by a heated Democratic primary in which three candidates appear to be neck-and-neck, according to public polls.

Card check "is something [McDonnell] can talk about to try to stay relevant while he tries to figure out who his general election opposition is," said Carolyn Funk, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "He's basically treading water right now and he wants to have something to talk about."

McDonnell has also tried to use the issue to paint a contrast between himself and the three Democrats -- former state Del. Brian Moran (D), state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D). McDonnell's campaign has used web videos of the Democratic candidates explaining their position on the issue.

Polling on the Employee Free Choice Act reveals murky results that favor whichever side is best able to frame it. Supporters brag that unions remain popular overall, and that legislation making it easier for unions to form and workers to make more money wins voter approval. Opponents argue the provision would strip the rights of employers to demand that workers hold a secret ballot election for union representation. Without that right, they argue intimidation of workers by union representative is more likely.

In a race in which job creation has been the dominant topic, McDonnell is getting an early start in framing the debate. But the Democratic candidates have shown no willingness to allow him to define the matter by himself.

"Card check is a federal issue, and the governor has no say in it," McAuliffe said in a statement provided to The Hill. "I’ve always believed that we need to strike the right balance between business and workers’ rights, and so my priority will be to make sure that whatever happens with card check, we find that right balance."

Moran spokesman Jesse Ferguson said the former Arlington-area delegate is looking forward to compromise legislation currently being worked out on Capitol Hill, and that McDonnell's portrayal of the legislation is inaccurate.

"It's kind of unfortunate that Bob McDonnell has chosen to demagogue on an issue that the governor of Virginia doesn't have a role in. It's clearly political grandstanding," Ferguson said.

But McDonnell insists the governor will have a role in standing up against the legislation, which he says would amount to a Tenth Amendment violation of states' rights.

"Part of what people expect of the governor is not just to be concerned about what the state legislature is going to do, but if Congress is going to do something that's bad for the state the governor needs to stand up," he said. "I've made it an issue in this race."

This story was amendmed on June 8 to correct an error in the initial copy.