In one of the first major endorsements of this year's mayoral race, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon picked up the support a powerful health care union yesterday.
The union, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, has about 4,500 members in the city and was a prominent backer of Martin O'Malley during his gubernatorial campaign last year. The group paid for a media blitz - including television commercials - that criticized then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Not only was the endorsement the first by any large union in this year's election, its announcement marked Dixon's first public campaign event leading up to the Sept. 11 primary election, in which at least four other candidates are expected to run.
"We're in the midst of a major election for Baltimore, and the city is either going to go up or it's going to go back," Dixon said. "This campaign is about where are we going to be 10 years from now."
The union represents workers at Johns Hopkins, Sinai and Maryland General hospitals as well as nursing home staff. It has nearly 10,000 members in Maryland and Washington, and counts health care worker training and inclusionary housing legislation - which would require the construction of more low- and middle-income housing - among its top issues.
Last year, the union paid for two radio ads and one television commercial that criticized Ehrlich's health care policies by highlighting his opposition to state legislation that attempted to force Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health care. This year, the group is likely to draw on its volunteer base to make phone calls and campaign door to door.
In a statement yesterday, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a mayoral candidate, said he expects he will receive support from the union's rank-and-file membership.
"It is disappointing that the SEIU decided to go with the status quo," Mitchell said in the statement. "I am surprised they would endorse a candidate who supported privatization of 177 city custodian and security guard jobs in 2001."
Mitchell's statement refers to a debate in 2001 when O'Malley, who was then mayor, proposed a budget that called for privatizing custodian and security positions. Though Dixon supported that budget, she was an outspoken critic of layoffs and voted against the privatization contracts on the Board of Estimates. She also helped broker a compromise with O'Malley to delay city layoffs.
Quincey Gamble, the union's political director, said mayoral candidates and potential candidates were interviewed in May, including Dixon, Mitchell, schools administrator Andrey Bundley and Del. Jill P. Carter. He said the organization was comfortable making its endorsement now, though the deadline to file for candidacy is not until next month.
"There is no one out there who we think will be a better mayor than Mayor Dixon," Gamble said. "Our folks have been really impressed with how she's had big ideas during her interim term as mayor."