Image: Howard Dean Speaks At SEIU Conference
Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean mingled with his supporters after addressing the Service Employees International Union in Washington.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/9/2003 2:07:54 AM ET 2003-09-09T06:07:54

Wait just a little bit longer — or jump on the Howard Dean bandwagon? That’s the decision now facing the nation’s two biggest unions, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union. AFSCME is holding off an endorsement decision until November while SEIU could reveal its choice as early as Wednesday. But more likely, SEIU, too, will bide its time at least few weeks longer.

There are persuasive reasons to hold off on an endorsement: to avoid a case of buyer’s remorse, to determine if Dean’s shifting positions on some issues become a liability for his campaign, to see if Dean is able to raise the $15 million in the third quarter that almost everyone in Washington expects him to raise, and to find out if retired Gen. Wesley Clark will enter the race.

Winning the blessing of the 1.5 million-member SEIU, the largest and fastest-growing union in the country, would be a triumph for Dean, who has not yet won any major union endorsements.

Since SEIU has many black, Latino and immigrant members, if it backed Dean it would help diversify his campaign beyond the affluent, white college graduates who form the base of his support.

SEIU President Andrew Stern indicated the union would likely delay an endorsement decision since “a lot of our local unions have not gone through the same kind of process” of listening to the Democratic contenders and weighing a decision. “This is very early to capture the attention of people who work very hard sweeping floors,” he said.

Most SEIU members in California, he added, are preoccupied with fighting the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

On Monday Dean, seen as the frontrunner by many Washington pundits and Democratic Party activists, won an ecstatic reception from 1,500 SEIU members when he addressed them at a Washington hotel.

Dean mocked the arguments of those who would say, “Oh, that Dean is so liberal — he didn’t support the war, so he can’t win the presidency.”

He railed against President Bush for spending billions of dollars on the military occupation of Iraq.

“What about the schools and the hospitals and the health care… Our budget deficit is going be more than a half a trillion dollars and we could insure easily every man woman and child in the United States of America for that amount of money. Where are your priorities, Mr. President, are they here with our people or are they somewhere else?”

Thus Dean appealed directly to the interests of SEIU members who work as nurses, home health care workers, nursing home attendants, and janitors. Every dollar spent in Iraq is a dollar that can’t be spent on Medicaid, the program for low-income people, or on other federal health care programs.

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Dean portrayed himself to the SEIU as an unapologetic liberal candidate.

“So many Democrats in the past few years have said, ‘we’ll go the middle, we’ll go to the right; make sure the swing voters are happy,’” but “I think we ought to start with the trade union movement, with African-Americans, with Latinos.”


He said Democrats would win the White House and regain control of Congress by “being proud of who we are as Democrats” and pledged to “take this party back” — from whom he didn’t say — and “stand up for what we believe as Democrats.”

Dean even vowed to defeat House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who represents a 60 percent GOP district in Texas. “He’s going back to Houston to exterminate cockroaches,” Dean scoffed, a reference to DeLay’s former job as head of a pest control firm.

Dean and the other Democratic presidential contenders went through a kind of audition Monday, when SEIU asked them to take the “hang test,” a 25-minute closed-door meeting between each contender and a group of 25 rank-and-file SEIU members. No SEIU leaders attended those sessions. The purpose, said Stern was to see if the candidate was one a working-class person would want to “go bowling with or have a beer with.”

He added in an allusion to Al Gore, “if you think about it in the 2000 election, being stiff wasn’t necessarily a great personal ingredient to run for president. Being able to relate to workers is a big asset.”


Also receiving a warm, although slightly less ecstatic reaction from the SEIU activists Monday was Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who has been a stalwart ally of organized labor ever since he came to Washington 25 years ago.

Calling Bush “the worst president of the five I have served with,” Gephardt used what is fast becoming his trademark slogan: “This president is a miserable failure.”

Gephardt, who touted his new Bush-bashing web site called, said the president had not delivered funding to local police and fire departments to help them prepare for a terrorist attack in the United States.

“You are not safer than you were before Sept. 11,” he declared, adding that his real worry was “an A-bomb in a Ryder truck.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who also met with SEIU members, said, “I urged them to hang back a little bit, watch this develop. ... They’ve got to remember what this is all about. If their goal is to make sure we defeat George Bush, I believe I’m the Democrat who has the best chance to do that because I cannot only unite the Democratic base but I can get the support of independents and even a few Republicans. And that’s the way you win.”


Lieberman hit Dean hard last week, charging that he’d cause a “Dean Depression” if he followed through with a policy of requiring all trade accords to be written to include U.S. labor and environmental regulations.

Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi told Monday that Lieberman’s attacks were only helping Dean.

“Any time anybody hits us, we gain supporters and we get more money,” Trippi said. “It’s better when Lieberman does. Lieberman and the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council, a business-friendly Democratic group) is the best thing that ever happened to us.”

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