The powerful South Bay Labor Council has been rallying votes for two chosen candidates for the Palo Alto City Council with an intensity that is puzzling some officials, political observers and even the candidates themselves.
The council, an alliance of more than 70 unions, has organized phone drives, precinct walks and mailings of fliers on behalf of candidates Sid Espinosa and Yiaway Yeh, two of 11 candidates competing for four open seats on the City Council.
"It's clearly playing a bigger role than has been the case in the past," Gary Fazzino, former longtime council member and unofficial city historian, said of the increased involvement.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss said she also is puzzled by the union push.
"It's weird," she said. "I have never seen the union this involved with a Palo Alto election. I'm at a loss to explain why we have suddenly become that interesting." Kniss is a former member of both the City Council and Palo Alto Board of Education.
Fazzino said the local SEIU or the Palo Alto Fire Fighters (Local 1319 of the International Association of Firefighters) often weigh in, but the Labor Council usually focuses its efforts on the South County and San Jose.
But Labor Council Executive Officer Phaedra Ellis said labor's efforts in Palo Alto are not uncustomary. She said Palo Alto is one of the three cities, including Sunnyvale and Cupertino, that are receiving the bulk of the council's focus this year, however.
"What we look for are cities that are important both locally and on regional issues," Ellis said. "Palo Alto is a key piece ... that fosters leaders that are important to the committee."
The Labor Council's Web site only listed opportunities to phone bank and walk precincts in Palo Alto, however.
Ellis said it might appear that labor's focus is greater this year because the election is dominated by local rather than state or national issues. In addition, Ellis said the council usually works with the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, but this election the two groups are campaigning independently.
Ellis said the council expects to spend about $9,000 on Palo Alto's campaign.
As of Oct. 20, Yeh had also received $500 in direct contributions from labor groups, while Espinosa had reported $700 in cash donations.
The Labor Council endorsed Espinosa and Yeh after interviewing five candidates, including Tim Gray, Bill Ross and Mark Nadim, according to Phil Plymale, chapter chair of the city's largest employee union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, a member of the Labor Council. The union invited all 11 candidates to participate, Plymale said.
"We're not trying to get people in our back pocket, we're just trying to get accessibility to people who are the real bosses of the city," Plymale said.
He said the SEIU wasn't responsible for an increased campaign effort this year, adding that it was "real involved" two years ago in support of then-candidates Peter Drekmeier and John Barton, both of whom were elected to the council.
But Ellis said Palo Alto has traditionally been a "valuable priority" for labor.
"It's not accurate to say Palo Alto is not important to us. We're proud of people elected to the Palo Alto City Council," such as State Sen. Joe Simitian, a former council member, Ellis said.
Other Palo Altans who believe labor's influence is greater this year also say they aren't sure why. Some speculate that perhaps it is the impending $80-million waste-hauling contract or the continuing pressure to shave benefits for city workers.
In September, labor leaders made an unconventional showing in the Palo Alto Council Chambers, protesting a routine pump-replacement project because it didn't guarantee "prevailing wages" for employees working for contractors.
Currently, charter cities such as Palo Alto aren't required to pay state-mandated prevailing wages for projects that are considered solely "municipal."
But law in that area is rapidly changing and City Attorney Gary Baum called the issue a "close call" in September.
The City Council decided to award the contract, after it received assurances the workers would be paid wages on par with the legally defined prevailing wages.
But council members agreed to discuss prevailing wages in the future, a move that could significantly increase the cost of some city contracts.
Juan Garza, a senior compliance officer with the Joint Electrical Industry Fund of Santa Clara County, who advocated for the prevailing-wage requirement, said the prevailing-wage debate did not motivate labor leaders to exert influence in Palo Alto's election.
"I don't think there's any correlation to that at all," Garza said Monday. "That's speculation and probably more anti-labor than anything else. Working people try to talk to people who are going to be elected all the time."
Yeh and Espinosa said they also aren't aware of the motivation, if any, behind the unions' efforts.
"I think the most important aspect I would want people to understand is that this isn't a coordinated effort -- this isn't part of the campaign," Espinosa said, adding he hasn't had conversations with labor leaders since the interview for the endorsement.
"It's all been a surprise, frankly."
"The reason why it's not troubling to me is that … these are individuals who are supporting somebody who believes in the same things they do and that's what democracy is about," Espinosa said.
Yeh said he appreciated the unions' efforts: "I'm very happy to have the support of working families."
But Yeh and Espinosa emphasized that the expenditures and campaign efforts don't mean they owe labor anything as council members.
"It doesn't influence any future decision-making," Yeh said.
Espinosa also said he has support from all segments of the community, including business.
Drekmeier, who received the support of the unions in 2005, said it hadn't affected his votes on the council although he is generally pro-union.
And he disputed whether the labor movement has been more influential this year.
"It seems to me it's probably about the same," he said.