Union in Clinton's Corner--And Ready For a Fight
The first thing Gerald McEntee wants you to know is that Bill Clinton didn't make him do it.
From the moment it was clear that McEntee's American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) would endorse Hillary Clinton for president, the line from her opponents was that this was an endorsement long in the bag because of McEntee's ties to the former president.
McEntee, the AFSCME president, insists otherwise. Certainly he has long ties to the Clintons. He's proud that AFSCME was the first major union to support Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy in 1992 -- a critical endorsement for a candidate who has had difficult relations with organized labor. And he's never made any secret of his admiration for Hillary Clinton.
But did the former president lobby McEntee and the AFSCME leadership on his wife's behalf? Not according to McEntee. "Not once did he ever ask me to support Hillary Clinton," McEntee said in an interview a few hours after the union announced its support for the New York senator. "To my knowledge, he didn't call anybody on our board."
McEntee said he'd spoken to the former president only twice this year. Clinton called McEntee early in the year to ask about AFSCME's process for endorsing candidates; McEntee called Clinton a few months ago to explain how Nevada Democrats would conduct their presidential caucuses.
"He didn't ask me to support Hillary," McEntee said again.
Hillary Clinton did, however, making repeated calls that included McEntee and many others in the AFSCME hierarchy who were involved in the endorsement process.
The second thing McEntee wants you to know is that this endorsement process bears no resemblance to that of four years ago, when AFSCME joined with the Service Employees International Union in a surprise endorsement of Howard Dean.
McEntee is still recovering from that experience -- both Dean's implosion and his own public rupture with the former Vermont governor, who he dubbed as "nuts" on the way out the door after Dean had fallen from presumptive nominee to loser in Iowa and New Hampshire.
McEntee has been haunted by what happened and bears much of the responsibility for what transpired. Unlike some unions in 2004, AFSCME ran a top-down endorsement process -- what McEntee wanted, the union did.
This time, he vowed to "drill down" deeper into his membership before coming out with an endorsement, though it was quickly apparent that only two candidates had a realistic shot at the endorsement: Clinton and Barack Obama. "We said from the beginning we did not want to repeat the mistake that we made in the endorsement of Dean," McEntee said.
McEntee's order to drill down resulted in a series of polls sampling opinion of AFSCME's 1.4 million members. The first poll of AFSCME members conducted in March showed Clinton with 42 percent, Obama with 26 percent.
After a leadership conference in June, AFSCME conducted a straw poll among 2,000 attendees. Of the 485 who responded, Obama led with 34 percent, followed by Clinton with 29 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. "None of the other candidates were anywhere," he said.
AFSCME took another poll of members in early September. That showed Clinton at 41 percent, Obama 22 percent and Edwards at 10 percent. In that same poll, a state-by-state survey showed Clinton the favorite of AFSCME members in 20 states, Obama the favorite in one.
AFSCME later did another survey of 43,000 members, using a recorded questionnaire. Clinton led in that as well, with 36 percent to Obama's 16 percent and Edwards's 13 percent. Clinton led in 37 states, Obama four and Edwards in none, but the former North Carolina senator ran better than Obama with AFSCME members in 15 states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The union leadership also reviewed the candidates on the issues. "There really wasn't an eyelash of difference between their positions," McEntee said.
Electability also factored into the discussions. "It was our feeling that even though she [Clinton] has these high negatives, that by the time the Republicans are done, whatever Democrat it is, there will be high negatives," McEntee said. He noted that AFSCME's Ohio membership preferred Clinton over the others because "they sincerely believe that she can carry that state and take it from red to blue."
The final vote of the AFSCME Executive Board was decisive for Clinton: 23-10. McEntee called that the kind of supermajority support that justified the union's endorsement.
The third thing McEntee wants you to know is that Barack Obama tried hard to delay the endorsement. "He called me last Saturday," McEntee said. "He made a number of calls to our members on the board, making the argument to hold off and give him a chance in Iowa."
Obama asked the union to wait until after the Iowa caucuses, hoping to demonstrate through the results that he had the kind of popular support that deserved the union's endorsement.
McEntee and others did not find the argument persuasive. "When we looked at the numbers, I think he has shown his stuff in Iowa. He has more offices than Hillary. He has spent more money than Hillary. He has more staff than Hillary. So it seemed to the vast majority of our people that that argument didn't carry a lot of weight because of what he's been doing and how many times he's been in Iowa."
The fourth thing McEntee wants you to know is that organized labor is fully invested in electing its candidate. AFSCME will spend $60 million in the 2008 cycle, with about $5 million to $6 million additional allocated to the primaries.
But he said the entire labor movement will spend $250 million to $275 million overall to elect the Democratic nominee, an unprecedented amount and one that never before has been aggregated by union leaders. That includes about $50 million by AFL-CIO.
"The American labor movement is in a very big time neighborhood this time around because, I guess, driven to a large extent by the Bush policies," he said, adding that labor leaders want the American people "to know how invested we are in this particular election."
The last thing McEntee wants you to know is that he understands the value of the right endorsement at the right time, based on what the union did in 1992 when it supported Bill Clinton. "It was good because it gave our union access to the levers of power and we were able to do things that we were never able to do before. That happened to us and we saw it happen."
McEntee obviously would like to see that happen again, and so after drilling down as far as he could, AFSCME ended up exactly where everyone predicted at the start of the year: back in the Clintons' camp.
So in the end, you might say of McEntee, Bill Cinton did make him do it.
Washington Post editors
November 1, 2007; 12:55 PM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton
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