Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, already embroiled in a no-holds-barred brawl to hold on to his 14th District seat, may have to fight a two-front war this fall as he also seeks re-election as president of Teamsters Local 707 amid a pension fund meltdown.
John Kelder, a Teamster retiree, said there's anger in union ranks and he is already seeking to put together a slate of candidates to run against McCaffrey and his board. Nominations will be made in October and union elections will occur around Election Day.
Sparking that effort is a "notice of insolvency" that the union sent out about a month ago, warning that starting in February, the fund will owe $47.6 million in annual pension payments and have only $34.65 million to make payments. "The calls I'm getting from retirees are heartbreaking. Their pensions are being slashed by two-thirds," Kelder said. "He's been in charge of the pension for 20 years. He can't point the finger at anyone else."
However, McCaffrey, who unseated Kelder in 1994 and has beaten him several times since, said he believes union members see him as the best leader to deal with vexing pension issues. But he's unsure how it will affect county or union races.
"The timing could have been better, but I'm willing to deal with reality and the hard choices," McCaffrey said. "No one is happy about the situation, but they understand it and they're confident I'm trying to work out a solution."
McCaffrey also said Kelder's estimate of pension cuts "is a worst-case scenario," which he hopes to ease. He added pension cuts will affect only about 900 of the union's 2,200 active members. The union has 4,500 active members and retirees.
The crisis, McCaffrey said, is the result of many unionized trucking companies going out of business, cutting the number of pension contributors. He also said the Wall Street crash forced the union to make major pension concessions. Until now, federal law barred unions from changing benefits even if the fund became depleted. McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) successfully lobbied for a new law allowing unions to preserve fund assets by making modest benefits cuts. Local 707 is the first union nationally asking to make cuts.
But Democrats say McCaffrey's $100,000-a-year legislative salary and annual $106,000 union pay looks bad when he is seeking to cut retiree pensions. "No matter what his explanation, it speaks volumes about his leadership when he takes raises for himself while retirees are forced to take cutbacks," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman.
One Local 707 retiree, Nick Palazzo, a Republican who lives in McCaffrey's district, which encompasses the southern portion of Babylon Town, said he will not vote for him. "He's wearing more hats than he's got hairs on his head," he said. "He's not managing the fund, he's passing laws."
Bob King, president of the local's retirees club, concedes there is much worry among pensioners, but said they don't blame McCaffrey. "Most of the pensioners I talk to have faith in him and feel he's working as hard as he can to help us," he said.
McCaffrey's upset legislative win two years ago was sparked by a GOP voter edge and his high profile as Lindenhurst's deputy mayor for 23 years. It was a huge blow to both County Executive Steve Bellone and Schaffer, who live in the district. Democrats have put forward Bellone aide Tim Sini, a former federal prosecutor, to run against McCaffrey. Sini has been walking door to door for months to get better known quickly.
However, McCaffrey says he has already knocked on more than 3,500 doors and expects to double it by November. He also said Democratic attempts to use the pension issue could backfire because many unions, normally Democratic allies, face similar problems.
Tony Pancella, Babylon GOP chairman, said Democrats fell flat with the same attack two years ago and are now encouraging union agitators behind the scene. "He going to be victorious for one reason, he's a good man doing a great job," he said of McCaffrey.