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Campaign Times: Howard Dean Won Endorsements

November 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Howard Dean’s campaign is celebrating his endorsement by two large, politically active labor unions: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME, and the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

In getting their support, Dean beat out rivals in the Democratic presidential field with far more established labor ties, like Congressman Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry. So how did Dean win them over? And what do they offer his campaign? For that, we turn to New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.

Steve, welcome. So, why did this happen? Why did the unions abandon their old champion on Capitol Hill Dick Gephardt and go for Howard Dean?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Hi, Margaret nice to be here. The two unions acted in ways for different reasons. The Service Employees very much felt that Dean was like them, that Dean is very interested in health coverage, and this is a union that’s very, very interested in health coverage. The American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees, AFSCME, was looking for a candidate that is very much a winner. They are looking for someone they think would have the best chance of beating the president and they think Dean is their guy.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying for the service employees who tended to be quite liberal it really was more about issues. But for AFSCME, they thought Dean was more electable?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes. Yes, the SIEU thinks also that Dean is electable, but the SIEU is looking for a candidate like them, the SIEU is very much a grassroots, bottom up somewhat liberal union, and they thought that Dean is their type of guy.

Jerry McEntee, the president of AFSCME, has a tradition of looking for a candidate who is very much a winner, AFSCME was the first union to really back Bill Clinton in ’92 and the group convinced that Howard Dean cannot only win a nomination but can also beat President Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: Now what persuaded them of that, that Dean really could beat (President) Bush — because I understand Jerry McEntee, head of AFSCME, the government workers, had said not too long ago he was worried that Dean’s very liberal stand on the war and his lack of foreign policy or military credentials actually meant he’d have a very hard time against Bush.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Well Mr. McEntee has gone through a political evolution. First he was leaning towards Kerry, but Senator Kerry’s campaign has not really done that well in recent months. Then Mr. McEntee was leaning towards General Clark, and Clark floundered a little in his answers about his views on the war in Iraq.

And McEntee continued to look for some thought he could win. He send some of his top aides to ask questions of the campaigns to get a sense of who has the best field operation, who has the best finances, and after doing a fairly in-depth study for a few days, they concluded a Dean has the best chance to win the nomination, that Dean has something unusual going, he’s really caught a lot of passion among Democrats, and clearly Jerry McEntee hopes that this passion for Dean will carry over to next November.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned the passion. I gather Dean worked the unions very hard, including at the local level.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Oh, very, very much. The Service Employees president, Andy Stern, said to Dean, if you want my union’s endorsement, you gotta go to the rank and file, we’re a bottom up union, don’t convince me, convince my members.

And Dean very, very assiduously met with rank and file members, went to local conventions, and Andy Stern kept hearing from down below, we want Dean, we want Dean. There was a meeting in September of 1,500 political delegates of the Service Employees, and Dean spoke to them and really wowed them, it was a tidal wave of support for Dean and the union said, you know, we gotta go with Dean.

MARGARET WARNER: So, as a practical matter, what do these two unions offer Dean?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: First, what happened today is really a political coup for Dean. Much of labor has been backing Gephardt and for Dean to be able to show the world, I have these two huge unions, two of what are probably the most politically powerful, politically savvy unions in the country, for him to say look they’re endorsing me, that lives him a lot of momentum.

Second when I say these unions are politically savvy, they’re very good at mobilizing the members. The Service Employees especially, perhaps more than in any other union in the nation, really get their individual members involved in organizing the campaigns and political campaigns. And the Service Employees can do a lot in Iowa, can do a lot in New Hampshire.

Now, in Iowa, AFSCME, the Government Employees Union is one of the two most powerful unions along with the United Auto Works, and AFSCME is expected to do a lot to help Dean in the political caucuses. As you know, in primaries and caucuses, the name of the game is getting people out there, getting people to the caucuses, getting people to the primaries, to the voting booth. And I think no one does that better than labor unions.

MARGARET WARNER: And remind us who the Service Employees are, you’ve mentioned that term a couple times.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Service Employees are the largest union in the AFL-CIO. They have 1.5 million members. They represent many many billing service workers and they represent about 750 health care workers — everyone from to nurses, nurse’s aides, to people picking up bed pans in nursing homes.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So how does the manpower, money, degree of activism, political muscle, how do they compare with the more industrial unions, like the Teamsters, Steelworkers and Machinists who have signed up with Gephardt, particularly in these early states?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: That’s a tough question. Twenty-one unions have endorsed Gephardt. Gephardt wanted the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which would have taken two thirds to get the endorsements. But only about one-third have endorsed Gephardt. And the Steelworkers, the Machinists, the Teamsters, these are very sophisticated strong unions and they will do a lot for Gephardt. On the other side you have the Service Employees, and AFSCME, with about 3 million members all told. I think in, I think they’ll balance out pretty well. I think maybe in Iowa the unions looking for Gephardt might have the upper hand because they have more members in Iowa than the Service Employees and the AFSCME, the Government Employees Union.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, would you say this is a big split in the labor movement? What does it say about the labor movement?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I would say it’s a big split, but it’s somewhat of a split. The unions like to say we’re very Democratic, we do what our members say, we go where they want and the industrial unions have loved Gephardt for years, he’s been there for them on trade, on protecting manufacturing, so it’s not surprising that the industrial unions would back Gephardt. The Service Employees, AFSCME, the Government Employees Union, they’re not so concerned about trade. Here concern concerned about health care. And Dean is someone with a new message he’s very much pushing, expanded health coverage for Americans, for the poor. AFSCME, the Service Employees really like that message so they’re going with Dean. I would think that who ever is nominate bid the Democrats, both the industrial unions and the Service Employees/AFSCME will rally behind him because the one thing that most unions are really agreed upon, despite this temporary split, is they don’t want George Bush to be in the White House after January 2005.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Thank you very much, Margaret, nice to be here.