Taking a giant step toward winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean picked up the endorsements of three labor unions with a combined membership of 3 million members Wednesday. An ebullient Dean celebrated with union members at an announcement ceremony at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, telling them their strength “dwarfs even our organization.”
The three were:
The 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, which represents nurses, janitors and security guards
The 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represent government workers
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which represents 140,000.
The endorsements had been widely expected since last week but they mark Dean’s most significant strategic victory of the campaign so far, giving him the power of thousands of union members who can canvass voters for him in the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and elsewhere.
Gephardt: Stalwart all of labor
Dean’s rival, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, has long been a stalwart ally of organized labor and has the backing of 20 unions, but Wednesday’s announcement was a sharp blow to his hopes of defeating Dean.
In his speech to the union activists, Dean alluded to the anger among rank-and-file Democrats which has powered his campaign.
“Sometimes the Democrats around the country are madder at the Democratic Party in Washington than they are at the Republicans,” he said. “We need to start with our base. We need to start with the people who brought us to the dance, who built the Democratic Party: women, African-Americans, Latinos and the labor movement.”
He vowed to attract up to 4 million people who either had not voted in 2000 or who had voted for third-party candidates. He also pledged to persuade 2 million Americans to each donate $100 to support his campaign.
Dean promised the union activists at the endorsement ceremony that if elected president he would provide medical insurance for every person in the United States at a cost of $87 billion a year.
Congress recently OK’d $87 billion in spending to continue military operations and reconstruction in Iraq, a fact to which Dean alluded.
“If the president could run that on our credit card and send the money to Iraq, he could put a health-care right” on the card for every American, Dean said.
AFSCME President Gerald McEntee told the crowd that Dean had put together “a grass-roots organization like we’ve never seen — energizing hundreds of thousands of people.”
McEntee declared that “together we can defeat this anti-worker, anti-family, anti-democracy president and his fat-cat friends.”
After the announcement, McEntee told reporters Dean is “the most electable; he can beat Bush.”
The war issue
Asked whether Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war would make it more difficult for him to beat Bush, McEntee said, “I think that Dean had great courage in terms of Iraq early on before anybody else did. And that (Iraq) appears to be going real bad. I think his judgment was right. His gut, his courage was there.”
Four of the nine Democratic contenders — Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Gephardt — voted for last year’s congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq.
McEntee said that in the last several months as he and his AFSCME colleagues mulled their decision, “We were very interested in Gen. (Wesley) Clark, but that didn’t work out.” He did not elaborate on that remark.
Democratic Party officials in Washington and around the country have voiced some worry that Dean is too incendiary in style and too liberal on issues such as gay rights to win the White House.
In a reference to the Democratic Party Establishment’s opposition to Dean, SEIU President Andrew Stern told reporters that for too long party officials in Washington and around the country had taken unions, African-Americans, and other minorities for granted. “Now those same people are worried that they are being taken for granted,” he noted.
“A candidate that can energize people to get to the polls, a candidate that can raise the money to be heard, and a candidate that can draw clear distinctions between himself and George Bush is the candidate that’s going to win. That’s Howard Dean.”
Stern said Democrats are looking for a combative candidate to take on Bush. “We tried in 2002 the ‘Bush Lite’ campaign and we lost (Georgia Sen.) Max Cleland and a whole group of senators who tried to run their campaigns on the basis of ‘we’re kind of like Bush some of the time, we voted with Bush more than other Democrats did.’ We watched (Democratic) Gov. (Ronnie) Musgrove lose his election (in Mississippi last week), we watched the election loss in Kentucky and things don’t look so good right now in Louisiana (which holds its gubernatorial election on Saturday). So this whole idea that we’re going to run a political strategy based on ‘we’re kind of like the other person’ hasn’t worked.”