Dean Endorsement Weighs on Labor's Thinking
CHICAGO -- Four years ago, two of the biggest unions in the country stunned the political establishment by joining together and endorsing Howard Dean for president. This year they are on divergent paths -- having drawn sharply different lessons from the 2004 experience
As the Democratic candidates gather for tonight's AFL-CIO debate at Soldier Field, the two unions reflect the competing philosophies inside the labor movement about endorsement strategies. Should they try to pick a winner, or reward candidates most committed to their agenda?
In November 2003, Gerald McEntee and Andy Stern pulled off what looked like a coup when they unexpectedly joined forces and put the muscle of their two unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) behind Dean's campaign.
Within three months, Dean's campaign had imploded and the union leaders were left to pick up the pieces. McEntee bolted in a public divorce with the candidate. On the way out the door, in an interview with Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, he described the candidate as "nuts." Stern loyally stood by the former Vermont governor until he pulled out of the race.
McEntee remains haunted by what happened. "I think it was a real learning experience for us," he said during a recent interview in his L Street office in Washington. "I think we jumped in when he was very popular in Iowa. But we didn't drill down far enough in terms of our own membership. It taught us that, as far as we can, find out where our members are, what kind of candidate they really want to support."
Another labor official said McEntee feels terribly burned by the experience. "I think he learned a very painful lesson," he said.
The SEIU came to the opposite conclusion. "Our members were very proud of the decision and very proud of the effort that they were engaged in," said Anna Burger, SEIU's secretary-treasurer, during a recent interview in her office overlooking DuPont Circle. "While they were disappointed in the results, they weren't disappointed by the decision to do it."
For the SEIU, finding a candidate who believes in labor's issues and in union workers is more important than picking someone because he or she is the likely winner of the nomination. Burger said when the SEIU membership was polled, that message came through clearly.
I asked Burger, "Isn't that good for John Edwards?"
"I think it is good for John Edwards," she said. "He's been very much out there on the street for working people."
Her comments came moments after she had criticized Hillary Clinton for being slow to put together a health care plan to achieve universal coverage. The SEIU set an Aug. 1 deadline for the candidates to release their plans. The interview with Burger came before that deadline, but Burger was then clearly frustrated with the Clinton campaign.
I asked what were the consequences of missing that deadline "I'm not sure that it's disqualifying," she said. "But I'm certain that it's disappointing. It's not that complicated."
The deadline passed last week without Clinton offering her health care plan. The union issued a release in Burger's name noting that Edwards, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson had met the deadline. "Senator Clinton has issued part of her plan, but we're still waiting to find out how many people she would cover and how she would pay for it," she said.
McEntee sees the choice as one of picking a winner. From his perspective, AFSCME could live with virtually any of the candidates on the issues -- although he too noted that Clinton's health care proposals need more fleshing out.
"On issues, we could probably live or be happy with any candidate," he said. "If that's the case, as we go through the issues and really take a long hard look at them, then it will come down to who can win. Who has the best chance of winning. Because [AFSCME members] want to get in the White House. They've been banged around and battered around by the Bush administration and one thing they all believe firmly, they don't want anybody even resembling Bush in the White House for four and or eight more years."
Since their joint endorsement of Dean in 2003, AFSCME and SEIU have gone separate ways within the labor movement. Led by Stern, SEIU and other unions bolted from the AFL-CIO and set up the Change to Win. McEntee's AFSCME stood by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney in opposition to Stern's defection.
Both unions are engaged in lengthy evaluations of the candidates that may -- or may not -- lead to endorsements. At this point, based on Burger's comments, Edwards has some advantage with the 1.9 million member SEIU. But Clinton has strong support from SEIU members in New York, and Obama has support from Illinois SEIU locals. That could stymie the union in the end.
Edwards appears to have less support at AFSCME, according to knowledgeable sources, in part because he is seen as more of a long shot for the White House. In 1992, McEntee sided with Bill Clinton in a surprise move. His ties with the former president remain strong -- Clinton has talked to McEntee a number of times to inquire about the details of their endorsement process -- and the New York senator has also made a point of courting McEntee.
But the president of AFSCME is mindful of his 1.4 million members and he's less likely to do what he did four years ago by taking a gamble with the union's endorsement.
The divergent paths of AFSCME and SEIU this year are, as a result, as interesting and important as their unexpected marriage was in 2003.
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