A letter of support for controversial labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder sent by the Maine Restaurant Association to Sen. Susan Collins has left a bad taste in the mouths of association critics, who say the organization has become too anti-worker.

It was partly concerns by both political parties about Puzder’s positions on labor issues that sank his nomination late Wednesday, when he withdrew from consideration for the labor post. But the restaurant association’s letter called him “uniquely qualified and an exceptional choice to lead the Labor Department.”

Steve Hewins, president of the restaurant association, said he and Director of Governmental Affairs Greg Dugal made the decision to send the letter to Collins on Feb. 2 at the request of the National Restaurant Association. Getting the board’s approval was not required by the organization’s bylaws, he said.

The restaurant association is a lobbying group that represents 490 members who work in the restaurant industry and 470 innkeepers.

The Maine People’s Alliance called it the latest in a long line of anti-worker positions taken by the restaurant group, such as fighting an increase in the state minimum wage.

“There’s obviously a lot of issues with this nominee,” said Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, before Puzder had withdrawn his name. “The ones that are most important to us is he has taken anti-worker stances – against minimum wage, against paid sick leave, against overtime protections – and that his restaurants have had so many violations of the laws that he is now nominated to oversee. So for the Maine Restaurant Association to call him an exemplar of their industry is really galling.”

FLOODED WITH PHONE CALLS

The alliance posted a piece about the letter on its website Tuesday, and Portland restaurateur Michelle Corry, who chairs the restaurant association’s board of directors, posted a response on her Facebook page because she was being flooded with phone calls from people upset by the position the association had taken.

In the response, Corry – who with her husband, Steve, co-owns Five Fifty-Five, Petite Jacqueline and the Portland Patisserie and Grand Cafe – said she had no knowledge of the letter and that the board had not voted on it.

“Much like I run my businesses, the association normally tries to remain out of national politics, especially when it pertains to specific individuals,” she wrote. “I am not, personally, happy that this decision was made without my knowledge or consent …”

In an email Wednesday, Corry said again that she had “absolutely no idea about the letter or that we were even considering such a thing.”

“It is way too important of an issue to make any moves without knowing the feelings of majority of board members, at the very least,” she said. “The association is a very large and diverse group, so we may not always agree, but we need to have a conversation about who we are supporting and why, and get a general feeling about how this will affect the association’s members.”

‘I DON’T MIND TAKING HEAT’

Hewins said he and Dugal felt that someone like Puzder, who is in the restaurant business, would better understand the needs of the restaurant community. Puzder is CEO of the company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food chains. Hewins said he was aware of the controversy surrounding the nominee, but decided the endorsement could be pulled if they didn’t like what they heard at Puzder’s confirmation hearings.

“What could possibly come out in the hearings that would change the kind of glowing recommendation that they just gave him?” Tipping said. “This wasn’t a milquetoast endorsement, it was full-throated.”

Hewins said the restaurant association typically does not endorse political candidates, “but a labor nominee is different.”

“I don’t mind taking heat for a decision that I made,” Hewins said, “and I’m aware of the allegations against the nominee – which I don’t like, by the way – but purely from the standpoint of running a restaurant association, having a restaurant person in there was the thing that allowed me to write a letter to Sen. Collins to support the nomination.”

Hewins and Corry both said the issue will be discussed at the next board meeting on March 1. The board will consider changing the bylaws to require board approval of such decisions.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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