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San Diego Union First in State to Establish GOP Advisory Committee

Unions have historically been associated with left leaning politics. But a San Diego union is the first in California to establish a GOP Advisory Committee, made up of Republican union members, to lob

San Diego Union First in State to Establish GOP Advisory Committee

Unions have historically been associated with left leaning politics. But a San Diego union is the first in California to establish a GOP Advisory Committee, made up of Republican union members, to lobby republican elected officials. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

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Richard Preuss works for the Chula Vista Police Department. He's been a union member for 20 years, even though, as a registered Republican, he never felt the union represented his political perspective. But this year Preuss become the chair of a newly formed GOP Advisory Council at his local union: SEIU Local 221 .

The union represents about 10,000 public employees who work for San Diego County or one of several cities.

Preuss says one of the first things the committee did was organize a trip to Sacramento to introduce themselves to Republican elected officials there.

<b> Preuss </b> : A lot of the people we talk to, their first reaction is Union? Republican? And then we start talking and we find we have the common core values, and common interests, and that's there room for working together and it's been a very good experience so far.
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Preuss says the message is that whoever is willing to support the union's agenda will get the union vote. He says unions have traditionally endorsed democratic candidates but that isn't something Democrats can take for granted any more.

Is this threatening to the local's Democratic members?

<b> Susan Brondel </b> :   Not at all.

Susan Brondel is Chair of Local 221's Political Organizing Committee which helps set its political agenda.

<b> Brondel </b> : We can advance our cause be reaching out to all people. Right now, we've really limited ourselves to half our population, half our legislature.

Brondel says the new effort to reach out to Republicans is a change from the more confrontational approach, where SEIU members wearing purple shirts demonstrated in the streets.

<b> Brondel </b> : Because what we find is when are able to sit down and talk we do have a lot of common ground, but we're shut out because they a see a purple shirt and assume you are a Democrat. We need to look at health care, affordable housing and education and see they matter to all of us. If we can open those doors, I think a lot more can be accomplished.

In San Diego many of the elected officials who hold the purse strings are Republicans.

Mathew Kostrinsky, Deputy Director of Government and Community relations for local 221, says the union has endorsed Republican candidates, and in the case of the County Supervisors, they don't have a lot of alternatives.

<b> Kostrinsky </b> : The reality is the entire board are Republicans, we need to work with them, and sometimes some of the best people to talk to is someone from your own party who can say ‘I'm just like you, in the sense that I'm registered as a Republican -- as you are -- and this is where I stand.’ It’s not about partisanship, it’s about working families.

Fighting for the interests of working families is the rallying cry, and the union is looking to recruit anyone who falls into that category. SEIU is one of the few unions that has not seen its membership decline, either nationally or locally.

Susan Blondel says opening the door to Republicans is a good strategy to keep recruiting new members.

<b> Brondel </b> : It could be that we have Republican folks who could be members of the union who based on that belief that the union is a strictly democratic institution that they're choosing not to be union members.

31 percent of the San Diego local's members are Republicans. That's less than the national average for the union. But the number could grow with the new initiative to reach out to the right.

Richard Preuss says bringing more Republicans into the union fold will get the attention of conservative elected officials who used to automatically turn a deaf ear to union lobbying.

<b> Preuss </b> : We want tp bridge that gap, we want to build dialogue between Republican members of the union and Republican elected officials.

Preuss says his Republican friends on the police force who are not members of the union tell him they will watch to see how things work out before joining. The proof of the pudding, he says, will be when they see the union endorsing Republican candidates.

Another union has already done so. The International Association of Machinists has endorsed republican Mike Huckabee along with democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. SEIU has well over four times bigger than the machinists union, and its Republican membership looks like it'll be growing.

Alison St John, KPBS News.