The Politics of Cynicism

SEIU lobbies for nursing home chains. Clint Reilly vs. Jack Davis, redux. Kerry raises money for Reilly's wife. Fabulous. Absolutely Fabulous.

Ordinarily, to keep my cynicism levels in check, I write about politics the minimum amount that allows me to hold onto my job commenting on our city's public life. This week is different, however. We're going to immerse ourselves in politics. We'll observe the clash of ideas, of interests, of differing interpretations on making the world a better place.

We'll visit the efforts of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a politically powerful labor organization that bills itself a champion of the afflicted. We'll examine how last week, at the behest of large nursing home chains, the union used its lobbying clout in Sacramento to torpedo a bill designed to improve conditions in California's Dickensian old folks' homes.

Next, we'll visit a local race for the state Assembly of such apparently high stakes that it's drawn John Kerry to a San Francisco fund-raiser this Friday. We'll look closely at the political milieu associated with that visit, and at a clash between bitter-enemy millionaire political consultants. One, a certain Clint Reilly, plans to commit a small fortune in cash and political favors to run his political-neophyte wife for the Legislature. The other, Jack Davis, master of political black arts, is reputedly coaching her opponent, Fiona Ma, for the sheer glee of jeopardizing his old foe's plans.

After we observe the labor union with the idealistic reputation cravenly gutting the rights of the elderly, and watch the Democratic Party's standard-bearer dragging himself through San Francisco's petty and vicious political muck, it's my hope that we'll rethink what it means to be cynical about politics.

During these moments of reflection, it is my hope we can recall the words of Lily Tomlin, who's reputed to have said, "No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up."


When I finally reached lobbyist Tamara Rasberry last week at her office at the California State Council of Service Employees, the SEIU's state lobbying arm, I expected her to be in a jolly mood. At the behest of for-profit nursing home chains, she had helped derail efforts by the AARP, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, and representatives of patients with Alzheimer's and other disabilities to pass the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights. This Senate bill would have stepped up enforcement of state laws requiring homes to hire enough orderlies and nurses to ensure patient safety.

Nursing homes are notorious for diverting money from their skilled-care facilities to other divisions, where they book the diversions as profit. The bill would have punished nursing homes that fraudulently divert state subsidies by yanking the subsidy for a year. It would have required nursing homes to submit quarterly payroll records to regulators, to make it harder to divert those subsidies. And the bill would have funded increased audit efforts by the state, so illegal understaffing and fund diversion by nursing homes would be harder still. The bill also included provisions involving basic patient rights, including one that would have hiked the fine a nursing home can receive when one of its employees rapes a patient -- which actually happens on occasion -- from $1,000 to a maximum of $20,000.

Last week SEIU lobbyists succeeded in postponing the legislation for a year, putting the bill into the Sacramento equivalent of purgatory.

But rather than cheerily boast of her victory, Rasberry was snippy and defensive when I spoke to her. For some reason, she seemed upset that I had obtained an e-mail message she'd sent, which detailed exactly how the SEIU would oppose the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights.

"That was an internal document, and it's not for public record at all," Rasberry said when I asked her about the e-mail, which she'd prepared for Scott Carlson, formerly vice president of Beverly Enterprises Inc., a for-profit nursing home chain. Carlson is now CEO of the California Alliance to Advance Nursing Home Care, a group formed to carry out a lobbying pact that's the subject of Rasberry's memo.

"It was an internal memo, an analysis I wrote for one of our clients," Rasberry said before refusing to talk to me further and referring me to an SEIU press representative.

How could it be that Rasberry -- a lobbyist for a union that represents humble service workers, that prides itself on uplifting the oppressed with campaigns such as Justice for Janitors and Healthcare for All -- finds herself defending secret memos on how best to defeat or defang a nursing home patient-rights bill? And how did she come to regard Carlson, a spokesman for nursing home industry interests, as a "client"?

This can be traced to the boast, by SEIU and its national president, Andy Stern, that the union will become the dynamic new face of labor, in part by forging cooperative, rather than confrontational, relationships with employers. In the case of nursing homes and California, that's meant using the union's lobbying clout with Sacramento Democrats, to whom the union gave more than $600,000 in campaign contributions last year, to get things private nursing home chains want -- such as fending off regulation of the sort detailed in Rasberry's memo.

"The most disgusting thing in my life has been dealing with these people," says Pat McGinnis, director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a backer of the rights bill. "Yet instead of people saying, 'Isn't this disgusting that the union is selling out nursing home residents?' they're dazzled by how great it is that these long-term opponents are working together."

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