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Will Dean Wear The Union Label?

Howard Dean
CBS
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This commentary from The New Republic was written by Ryan Lizza
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Howard Dean is about to take another huge step toward winning the Democratic nomination. According to union officials and aides to several campaigns, it is nearly certain that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) will endorse Dean next week. This may sound like just another obscure piece of campaign inside baseball, but the endorsement could transform the race.

With 1.6 million members, SEIU is the biggest and fastest-growing union in the AFL-CIO. Its 63-member executive board will meet in Washington on November 6 to make its decision, and no other candidates are being considered for the endorsement. "It's come down to the one candidate who has demonstrated enough support among our members," says Andy Stern, SEIU's president, "which is Howard Dean. And anything else we did would really not be true to what we said, which is that members are the soul of this union. There is only one candidate who you could honestly say has enough support to merit an endorsement. With the AFL, it was [Dick] Gephardt or no endorsement. With SEIU, it's Dean or no endorsement, and no endorsement could win.... Some people like Dean, but they don't think the union should endorse."

If the national SEIU decides not to formally endorse, the many local branches that are pro-Dean would still probably be free to back him. "There is a very rational argument to let those locals go on their own and let everyone else continue on with their business," says Stern. "It's the coalition of the willing as opposed to dragging the agnostics." But others insist a national endorsement is a fait accompli. Says an aide to a rival candidate who fought fiercely for SEIU's imprimatur, "It's done. It's Dean."

Organizationally and ideologically, Stern's SEIU and the Dean campaign are a natural fit. Under Stern's leadership, SEIU has grown by some 735,000 members. "They've done it by building this army of organizers," says a Dean adviser. "People that approach things with the same zeal as you find in the Dean campaign. These are folks on a mission." And, just as Dean has criticized Washington Democrats, Stern has been an irritant to the old-guard labor leaders. Earlier this year, after AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney ignored a sweeping proposal on how to increase labor's ranks, Stern and four other union presidents set up their own organization to work on recruitment outside the sclerotic bureaucracy of the AFL.

"The Dean campaign bears a lot of characteristics of a successful SEIU organizing drive," says a Democratic labor consultant. "The depth of commitment, the sense that it's not just about winning a contract but building a movement. And it's something none of the other candidates are doing." The Dean campaign has convinced SEIU members and leaders that it shares the same approach to organizing. The master plan of Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi is to build an organization of two million supporters who can each contribute $200. That's exactly how SEIU approaches its work. The union has a plan to raise $20 million next year from 500,000 members. Like the Dean campaign, SEIU also recruits young, idealistic activists. If your college-age daughter at Berkeley or Oberlin didn't work on the Dean campaign last summer, she probably organized for SEIU. And the key to both organizations' message is empowerment. When Dean spoke before SEIU's 1,500 top activists recently, he spent some time talking about issues, but his real pitch was a fiery appeal for them to join his movement. "His message of 'you have the power' is very similar to what we say every day to nonunion workers," says Stern.

Not that issues didn't matter. Because many of its members are employed in low-wage jobs without health benefits, SEIU made it clear to every candidate seeking its endorsement that he or she had to have a comprehensive, written health care plan. An SEIU advertisement at the airport in Des Moines, Iowa, greets passengers with this message: "Running for president? Health care better be your priority." Gephardt based his whole campaign strategy on this warning. Gephardt knew he could already count on the support of the industrial unions because of his long record fighting NAFTA and other trade deals. But those unions -- think Rust Belt, blue-collar workers who actually make stuff -- weren't enough to get him the AFL-CIO's endorsement. To get to the magic two-thirds majority, he needed SEIU, whose members -- think urban black and Hispanic janitors, security guards, and nurses -- aren't as affected by globalization. "They care about trade, but at the same time they don't see this dogged loyalty to Dick Gephardt because he was with us on NAFTA," says the Democratic labor consultant.

For them, Gephardt came up with the most ambitious and expensive health care plan of all the candidates and unveiled it back in April before New York's SEIU 1199, the union's largest and most influential local. The logic was impeccable: produce a bold health care plan, win over 1199, win over SEIU, win the AFL-CIO endorsement. But, in the end, another issue unexpectedly trumped health care for SEIU: the war. And it helped Dean stand out. ("All the major candidates have pretty comprehensive health care plans and ways to pay for them," says Stern.) A frequent argument heard at SEIU's recent political conference was that the war was choking off scarce resources for government social services, upon which SEIU members disproportionately rely. And some of SEIU's key leaders, who come out of the activist left, strongly opposed intervention in Iraq. One of the earliest and most vociferous SEIU Dean backers was Dennis Rivera, 1199's president and a leading war opponent. His union took out a full-page ad in The New York Times against invading Iraq and bused its members -- organized as 1199ers for Peace and Justice -- to the big antiwar rallies on the Mall in Washington. The Dean campaign's own liaison to labor is Bob Muehlenkamp, who was formerly the organizing director for 1199 and who earlier this year founded U.S. Labor Against War. In an e-mail pitching Dean to labor activists recently, he noted, "I first became interested in Governor Dean because of his courageous, early opposition to the Iraq war." (It probably didn't hurt Dean that Muehlenkamp's wife is AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman, who was instrumental in convincing unions to take Dean seriously earlier this year when they were rushing to sign up with Gephardt.)

The implications of an SEIU endorsement are huge. SEIU is home to many recent Hispanic immigrants and other minorities. Its membership is 28 percent black and Latino, and it represents more immigrant workers than any other union. Coming on top of high-profile African American endorsements from the likes of Jesse Jackson Jr., SEIU's stamp of approval would immediately change the Dean campaign's image as a narrow movement of high-tech, latte-town liberals. And SEIU, which is influential in New Hampshire, the first primary state, as well as in delegate-rich California and New York, will give Dean a large ground force of experienced organizers to complement his own.

And Stern doesn't just bring SEIU with him. His endorsement could be similar to Gerald McEntee's 1992 nod to Bill Clinton. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), spoke glowingly of Clinton at a critical moment before the primaries started in January 1992; and he also freed local AFSCME to back the Arkansas governor. The move was a severe blow to Tom Harkin, who, like Gephardt today, was a longtime labor ally with deep industrial union support. McEntee opened doors for Clinton's campaign and was seen as a kingmaker.

SEIU's formal endorsement this year could have similar ripple effects. It could be a signal to the few big unions that are still on the fence, like the American Federation of Teachers and the Communications Workers of America, which is leaning toward Dean, that the former Vermont governor is a legitimate candidate worth backing. It could also help Dean with other party interest groups, since Stern is one of the most influential leaders in Democratic politics. In the post-McCain-Feingold world, much of the power of the DNC has shifted to a collection of liberal umbrella organizations known as 527s. Stern is at the center of three of the most important: Partnership for America's Families, America Coming Together, and America Votes, which together will spend tens -- and maybe hundreds -- of millions of dollars next year to beat President Bush. Dean could not have found a more powerful ally to help him build the institutional support he now needs.

On the other hand, there are downsides to the Dean/ SEIU alliance. McEntee, who has flirted with both John Kerry and Wesley Clark, is now taking a serious look at Dean. But McEntee and Stern are fierce rivals, in part because many of Stern's new government-worker members come at AFSCME's expense. The rivalry is so intense that union officials and campaign operatives speculate that McEntee may pull the plug on a potential Dean nod if SEIU embraces the candidate first. "I don't think if Jesus came down and ran for president AFSCME and SEIU would agree on an endorsement," says an aide to one candidate.

Secondly, one of the appeals of the Dean campaign is that its lack of Washington and Democratic interest-group support make it refreshingly unbeholden. Dean likes to argue that his army of small donors makes him independent. But he's always been a little too quick to pander to his immediate audience, and now he's in danger of getting further sucked into the interest-group politics of a front-runner. Would he cut government employees to balance the budget, as he's long pledged? Would he support charter schools, or -- God forbid -- experiment with vouchers now that he's been endorsed by the California Teachers Association?

Finally, although SEIU expands the Dean coalition in the economic sense, it reinforces the impression that his base of support is overwhelmingly liberal. The service union membership is largely confined to the cities and the coasts, and its leaders tend to be radical, even socialist (although Stern himself is a pragmatist, not an ideologue). Dean is building a powerful base of support among two key liberal demographics -- highly educated whites and low-income, minority, service-sector workers. While those groups represent the fastest-growing elements of the Democratic coalition, they don't help him attract white working-class voters -- who remain essential to winning in November. Then again, that is a problem Dean's rivals wish they had.

Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at TNR.


By Ryan Lizza
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