Larry Scanlon, national political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is retiring from his post.
Scanlon will set up his own firm after 38 years in the labor movement that included nearly 17 as the political director for the country’s largest public-sector union. The move comes after AFSCME elected Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders as its new president and the union faced a harsh loss in the Wisconsin recall election against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) earlier this month.
Scanlon told The Hill that he thought Saunders should have a chance to pick his own political team. Saunders was considered a protégée of Gerry McEntee, who was AFSCME’s president for about 30 years and a big-time player in Democratic Party and labor politics.
“We have a new president who is going to be building a new team that is going to be taking us into the next decade,” Scanlon said. “President McEntee is retiring, and I am going out with him. … It seemed to be a good time to let them pick someone for the long haul.”
Scanlon, 62, said the Wisconsin fight — inspired by Walker’s push to end collective bargaining rights for some public workers — emphasized the need for an around-the-clock political director for AFSCME. Scanlon said he was having trouble meeting those demands.
“I just don’t have the stamina for the job that I once had, which is really important considering the scope of the fights we are in and the scope of our program. … This is 24/7. You have to be a general on the front lines,” Scanlon said. “I couldn’t be out so much out there on the front lines and that reinforced the fact that they needed a new political director.”
Scanlon’s last day at AFSCME is Friday. He plans to stay involved in politics, including working with the Campaign Group, a Democratic political consulting firm.
“He is one of the smartest and best political minds walking around Washington,” said Doc Sweitzer, a co-founder of the Campaign Group, about Scanlon.
Scanlon also plans to form his own consulting firm, called the Scanlon Consulting Group, to help AFSCME and other clients with any kind of political work, including independent expenditures, from time to time.
“It will be something to keep me occupied occasionally,” Scanlon said. “I will be able to take on projects that I want to do and work as much or as little that I want to.”
Hired in June 1974, Scanlon’s first job in labor was as a field service assistant in New York’s Hudson Valley for the Civil Service Employees Association, AFSCME’s largest local affiliate.
The University of Notre Dame graduate would later join AFSCME in Washington, getting involved in some of its biggest fights, including the Wisconsin recall battle and pushing back against former President George W. Bush’s Social Security privatization effort.
Scanlon said labor has come under attack and that it’s fighting for its existence as new Republican governors and state legislatures from the 2010 elections have targeted unions.
“I think we are literally in a fight for survival. … The right-wing kind of folks, the libertarians, are asking ‘why do public workers have pensions and benefits?’ and are trying to take those away. They instead should be asking why don’t we have those?” Scanlon said. “If labor doesn’t survive, this country won’t survive.”
AFSCME’s political power has expanded over the years as Scanlon helped to lead the charge. The political director believes one of his first political program budgets at the union — for the 1996 election cycle, specifically — was no more than $20 million. Now, that same budget is about $100 million for the 2012 election cycle.
“We are under attack in a lot of states, from the state legislature level, the governor level, to the explosion of ballot initiatives. We are also taking on our own fights,” Scanlon said.
AFSCME is still searching for Scanlon’s replacement, but he wasn’t worried that the union would miss a step as the November elections draw closer.
“We are cooking right along here. No problem,” Scanlon said. “[Saunders has] hit the ground running and he knows the scope of the fights that we are in. He’s pledged the full measure of our resources, continuing the program that McEntee started, for not just the federal level but also the state and local levels.”