The Republican-friendly police union in Boston is threatening to play "bad cop" at the Democratic National Convention this summer even as hometown candidate John Kerry (search) prepares to accept his party's nomination for president.
The 1,400-member Boston Police Patrolmen's Association (search) plans a picket to help induce the city to accept its pay demands, an in-your-face tactic to embarrass the city and convention delegates usually sympathetic to union efforts. In the past, the union has held true to its threats by picketing state party gatherings.
"This is a trick they pull every time the Democrats have a convention," said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who worked on Kerry's Senate campaigns. "You aren't a real Democratic politician in Massachusetts unless you've been picketed by this police union."
The patrolmen's association, which has a long tradition of endorsing GOP candidates for president, has played havoc with presidential politics before. In 1988, it helped doom Democrat Michael Dukakis' (search) bid by endorsing Republican George H.W. Bush. The image of Bush standing with uniformed officers in Boston sent a symbolic message nationwide that their hometown candidate was soft on crime.
Tweaking the city during talks is the union's specialty. In 1976, when they were embroiled in a contract dispute, members showered bicentennial tourists with 100,000 leaflets describing Boston as "Crime City, USA." When police faced layoffs in 1981, they threatened to block the path of the 85th running of the Boston Marathon.
The patrolmen's association has been the most vitriolic of more than two dozen unions working for the city without a contract. Union president Thomas Nee has pursued months of protests against Boston Mayor Tom Menino, including an effort to bar him from the annual Labor Day breakfast last fall and picketing at the home opener at Fenway Park.
Menino has said repeatedly that he will not allow the unions' vigorous protests to push him into a contract at a time when the city is struggling to make ends meet. The union's contract expired in July 2002, when rank-and-file officers were earning an average of $79,000 a year.
The union has not endorsed a presidential candidate yet this year. Nee, who has been the most outspoken critic of the mayor, denied that the union was playing politics with the Democrats' convention.
"The first and only objective of this union is to take care of its membership with a contract worthy of its consideration," Nee said. "The mayor is using precious resources to hold this party and you can't have a party until you've paid your bills."
Some of the Democratic Party faithful question the police association's motivation for wanting to picket this time.
"The Boston patrolmen's association has been a hardcore Republican association for 20 to 30 years," said Lou DiNatale, a Democratic policy analyst at UMass-Boston. "The announcement that the Democrats were having a party here was seen as an opportunity to help their allies in the national Republican Party. It's beautiful."
Others, however, see the conflict as a simple bread-and-butter issue about fair wages, with no political strings attached.
"I don't believe there is any kind of partisan angle," said former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn (search), a Democrat who pleaded with the union in 1988 to reconsider its Bush endorsement. "They just don't support Democrats who don't support Democratic union values. They're advocating for better wages for their membership."
The union's relationship with Kerry has been mixed. True to form, the association endorsed Kerry's Republican opponent in his 1988 Senate race. In 1996, however, the patrolmen endorsed Kerry over his Republican challenger, Gov. William Weld, who had privatized thousands of jobs during his term in office.
Still, the image of Democrats standing up to unions in Boston might not be the worst thing for a party that has been criticized for being too beholden to this special interest, DiNatale said.
"Saying no to labor while the nation watches is not a bad idea for the Democrats," he said. "They can establish Democratic credentials in the middle of the spectrum rather than to the left."