Image: Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, right, answers questions at the AFL-CIO presidential forum as Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina listens.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/5/2003 3:55:23 PM ET 2003-08-05T19:55:23
ANALYSIS

The leaders of organized labor played host Tuesday night to a nine-candidate free-for-all among the Democratic presidential contenders. Long-shot contender Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio stood out from the crowd, delivering a rousing performance, challenging former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean on why he wasn’t willing to cut the defense budget and demanding that Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri tell the audience whether he’d revoke the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization.

After the debate, Kucinich insisted that it wasn’t impractical to cancel NAFTA and pull out of the WTO. “No one here answered that question.... None of them would say it — not even Dick Gephardt who is trying to rely on support from labor to become the next president.”

Dean said after the debate, “I don’t think we should cancel the WTO or NAFTA, but I do think labor and environmental standards have to be part of that. And if nations we trade with aren’t willing to embrace International Labor Organization standards, then I don’t think we can trade with them. We certainly can’t have open-border trade with them.”

Gephardt declined to answer Kucinich’s challenge but made a strong appeal for union members’ support, declaring, “This administration has declared war on the middle class in this country.”

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina emphasized his familial union ties. “This is personal,” he said, explaining that his brother was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and his mother a retired member of the letter carriers’ union.

The event also featured rhetorical bashing of China and low-priced Chinese labor from Gephardt and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. The crowd booed Lieberman when he said he’d support an experimental voucher program for public school students from low-income families.

Earlier Tuesday, while campaigning in Cicero, Ill., Lieberman repeated his charge that “a lot of my opponents are again advocating policies that Bill Clinton and Al Gore rejected: high taxes on the middle class, big spending programs to solve every problem, weakness or ambivalence on defense.” He didn’t specify any candidate, but it was clear from comments he made Monday in which he did cite the two that he meant principally Gephardt and Dean.

In recent days, Lieberman has said Dean is leading the Democrats “into the wilderness.” Asked about this comment, Dean said Tuesday night “I think I’m leading the party into the White House... I don’t see a Washington candidate being able to beat George Bush. We’ve got to stand up for what we believe is right... and that’s something that hasn’t happened for Democrats in the last couple of years.”

The 13 million-member AFL-CIO labor confederation is not likely to endorse a Democratic contender until October. And due to splits among the member unions, the labor confederation may not issue an endorsement at all until after the Democrats select their nominee next summer.

In an age of Internet fund-raising and the Meetup.com Web site that allows a candidate’s supporters — principally Dean’s — to spontaneously organize at the grass roots, who needs labor unions?

The answer: any Democrat who hopes to defeat George Bush.

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The labor union local is the original “meetup” — the place where political activists met to plan election strategy a hundred years before “dot com” entered the lingo.

When a union local president urges a member to vote for a candidate or when he asks a member to work the phone banks to get out the vote, the request is coming from a comrade the worker often has known for decades, someone who may well have attended his father’s funeral or gone to his daughter’s wedding.

No other constituency within the Democratic Party — not the environmentalists, not the feminists, not the trial lawyers — has the years of organizational expertise and the emotional, fraternal contacts that unions have.

Union members and their families represent about a quarter of the total electorate, even though unionized workers’ percentage of the total workforce has been declining for decades.

“The Meetup.com thing is great,” said Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt’s campaign chief of staff. “But what you don’t know is: Do those people end up going to a caucus? There’s a difference between giving someone $25 on the Internet and showing up at a caucus for three hours in rural Iowa.”

Next January’s Iowa caucuses are the Democratic campaign’s first contest.

The Democratic contender who most needs labor’s support is Gephardt, its long-time ally. He could use a lift right about now. Once considered the man to be beat in the Iowa caucuses, he has now fallen slightly behind Dean in the latest Des Moines Register poll.

Talking to a group of reporters Tuesday, Elmendorf said Gephardt hadn’t been able to spend as many days campaigning in Iowa as Dean had. “It’s a competitive race; therefore, when we win it, it will be a big deal for all of you, right? It’ll be huge.”

On Tuesday morning Gephardt picked up the backing of the steelworkers union, which represents 1.3 million active and retired members.

“I am seeking the endorsement of each individual union. I have 10; no one else has any. I’m proud of that,” Gephardt said.

While Gephardt has won the backing of older trade unions such as the Teamsters and the machinists, the service-sector unions such as the 1.5 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, are still mulling their options and may opt for a Democrat such as Dean, who puts his emphasis not on protecting American industries, but on devising a plan to offer health insurance to the uninsured. The SEIU wants each candidate to offer a detailed, costed-out proposal for providing medical insurance to every American.

FACTORY CLOSING

Gephardt “is the heart and soul and voice and conscience of working people,” said steelworkers President Leo Gerard.

Decrying the demise of manufacturing jobs, Gephardt told a whooping crowd of steelworker activists that “we are quickly giving up our capacity in this country to even defend ourselves.”

Testifying to that claim was union member Teri Luna, a nine-year veteran of the Magnequench Co. in Valparaiso, Ind. The firm, which makes the specialized neodymium-iron-boron magnets used in disk drives and in “smart bombs,” is shutting its Indiana plant and moving operations to China in September.

“If the Chinese government doesn’t want to sell them to you, you’re not going to get them,” Luna said.

Gephardt wants to negotiate new international trade accords that will force other nations to allow their workers to unionize and to run environmentally clean factories.

He said the cause of fighting for American jobs is bigger than his candidacy. “I’m unimportant,” he said. “I’m a tool. I’m just one person who believes in his heart that what we’re fighting for is the most important thing in the world.”

LIEBERMAN’S MODERATE MESSAGE

In his appeal for the blue-collar vote Tuesday morning, Lieberman toured the Corey Steel Co. plant in Cicero, Ill., outside Chicago.

Lieberman backer Rep. Bill Lipinski, who represents a socially conservative, blue-collar district including part of Cicero, said Lieberman “has the right message to win the general election. He’s one of the more moderate Democrats in the field, and that is what we’re going to need. He’s a man who epitomizes values. He took on the Hollywood people and the recording industry, who are normally natural fund-raising constituencies of the Democratic Party. This demonstrates he’s a man of principle — most Democratic candidates would chose not to do or say anything that would alienate” Hollywood.

Lipinski added, “The values issue is enormously important. He is the best man to counter the values issues the Republican Party puts forth.”

Distancing himself from candidates such as Gephardt and Dean who say they want to offer voters the sharpest possible contrast with Bush, Lipinski said, “You would be a fool to be against everything George Bush stands for. There are some things about George Bush that are very worthwhile.”

Lipinski said he and his constituents would object to a candidate who supported civil unions or same-sex marriages that gave gays and lesbians the same status as heterosexuals. He didn’t mention Dean by name, but Dean did sign the nation’s first civil unions bill for gays and lesbians.

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