How Did This Labor-Friendly Councilman Lose the SEIU 1199 Endorsement?

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When SEIU 1199 rolled out their endorsements last week, they noticeably turned their backs on a handful of City Hall incumbents seeking a third term. To Bronx Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, who saw the health care workers' union endorsement slip away to challenger Tony Perez Cassino, their choice was a brazen snub.

At first the major union claimed that the two-term councilman never expressed an interest in their election-time embrace, saying that he never requested an interview for an endorsement, a point that the councilman disputes.

"That's an outright falsehood," Koppell alleged. "It's clear that the fix was in because they never even interviewed me"...

Koppell said that his campaign reached out to 1199, along with many of the city's other unions, starting in January.

SEIU 1199 spokeswoman Leah Gonzalez, who was unaware of that letter, said that so early on endorsements were far from the union's focus. "We were in the throes of a very contentious budget fight on the state level during that time," she said.

Koppell's endorsement courtship did not end there. His campaign manager, Arthur Heller, who provided copies of e-mails and a phone log of communications, said that the union's political department ultimately disregarded them.

Records provided show that Heller called after the January letter. He then e-mailed a representative in the political department on March 16.

Heller phoned again on April 24, and said he was told that "there was no time frame for interviewing district 11 candidates." Heller followed up with another e-mail that day. He then said his calls went unreturned.

The union's choice of a challenger over an incumbent, especially in the case of one who has a decades-long career in politics including a stint as New York State Attorney General, stood out to political observers. Crain's Insider reported that the union viewed Cassino as "more progressive" and said that Koppell did not play a large enough role in 1199's strike at the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation Center in 2008 -- which are two points that the councilman disputes as well. Koppell maintained a good relationship with the union, and opened his doors to negotiators during the strike. He received their endorsement in both previous city council elections.

And the Working Families' Party, in which SEIU 1199 plays a major part, endorsed him this year.

Gonzalez, the union's spokeswoman, expressed concern about the councilman's allegations. "My understanding always was that he hadn't reached out even though, again, at the end of the day there's a multitude of factors that are taken into consideration when making endorsement decisions," she said.

"I'll definitely take a look at the information," Gonzalez added. "I hope that this is not something that didn't just happen to fall through the cracks, but it also depends on the timing. If he reached out in January everybody was concentrating on the state budget."

Gonzalez did not return calls for further comment.

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