Huffman sends campaign funds back to sugar company

11/03/2011

Democratic Congressional candidate and California Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) returned a $5,000 contribution on Monday that he had accepted from the American Crystal Sugar Company Political Action Committee (PAC) on September 23, nearly two months into the associated organization’s lockout of 1,300 union sugar beet workers who voted against a new contract that would slash benefits and limit job security at a time when sugar prices and profits are rising. His decision to send the funds back to the Minnesota-based sugar producer came several hours after he and his campaign were pressed for comment on the donation and 38 days after the initial receipt of the funds.  

“Due to American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of unionized sugar workers in Minnesota, which was only recently brought to my attention, I have returned their contribution to my campaign,” Huffman wrote in a statement sent by Andrew Acosta, his Sacramento-based campaign spokesman and strategist. “I stand in solidarity with the sugar workers and hope American Crystal Sugar ends their lockout so they can go back to work soon.”

Acosta declined to comment on how the contribution managed to slip through despite the contentious labor conflict.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, American Crystal has contributed $840,500 in the 2011-12 election cycle to both Republican and Democratic candidates across the country, including donations to Lynn Woolsey before the lockout.

The spokesman for the union that represents the factory workers, Mark Froemke, said the company had a solid relationship with union employees until late July, when it offered them an updated contract that would increase healthcare coverage prices, cut short-term disability, reduce job elimination protection and pensions and open the employment opportunities to workers outside the union. Ninety-six percent of the members rejected the deal in a vote, and the company hired replacement workers and a heightened security staff on August 1 to keep union employees out of plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

“They’ve just turned like mad dogs on the workers. This [contribution] is blood money,” Froemke said. “If [Huffman] did any kind of googling, he would find that the union and the company have had an incredible relationship working on Ag issues and then the relationship went south. Sometimes [campaigns] do not check out things the way they should.”  

After recent negotiations, American Crystal has made some concessions, like extending the current healthcare coverage to January, 2013, but language in the revised contract stipulated that “qualified” workers could resume work and did not define what the language meant. The union rejected the proposal on Tuesday.  

Froemke said the company is attempting to starve out the working-class employees—especially in North Dakota, where people locked out from their companies cannot collect unemployment—and waiting for temperatures to drop so people feel compelled to accept the contract in favor of paying their heating bills.

This is not the first time Huffman has accepted money from companies that may be at odds with the values he professes. An investigation into his California Assembly campaign financing records revealed sizeable contributions from Wal-Mart, Pacific Gas & Electric and Chevron in the 2009-10 election cycle. He also received a modest $500 donation from the San Rafael-based Dutra Group in 2009 and later remained neutral on the asphalt plant the company plans to build in Petaluma next to Shollenberger Park, a wetland and wildlife area.   

Huffman, who is ahead in two early research polls, leads the pack in campaign financing for the congressional race, with $416,424. Solomon, who is second behind Huffman in the polls, has raised the third most campaign funds, with $221,422 and has vowed to refuse corporate PAC donations. Lawson, a San Rafael businesswoman, has raised the second most funds, with $238,391 but lags in the research surveys commissioned by Solomon and Huffman.

Several labor and environmental groups have endorsed and donated to Huffman’s campaign, and the California Labor Federation rates his legislative record on labor issues at 97 percent. Spokesman Paul Cohen of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, a labor organization that donated $5,000 to Huffman’s congressional campaign, was unfazed by the American Crystal donation. 
“He was pretty effective in a relatively dysfunctional California legislature,” Cohen said. “It didn’t take a lot to decide we wanted to support [him]. Obviously, we are sympathetic to any workers that stand up for their rights. I think Jared has a good record of standing up for working families. This contribution doesn’t make me question his commitment.”