Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean’s army of supporters includes a lot of “lance corporals,” twentysomething recent college grads, but it has a few field marshals too.
Prominent among them: Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union which has put the power of its more than 1.4 million members behind Dean.
In an interview Tuesday in his Washington office with MSNBC.com, McEntee, a street-smart veteran who started his career as a Democratic assistant ward leader in Philadelphia in the 1960s, explained the enduring clout of his union in an age of Internet fund-raising and Meetup.com.
More than a million members
Starting with Iowa’s Jan. 19 precinct caucuses, AFSCME will be calling its members into action as mobilizers for Dean’s campaign.
Quoting Colin Powell, McEntee said AFSCME brings “boots on the ground” and “blood and treasure” to the battle for the nomination.
“We’re able to provide money to educate, register, and mobilize our own people, which is a significant job. We have, as of this morning, 105 people on the ground in Iowa talking to our people, going to their workplaces, going to their homes, phone banks going, mobilizing for the caucus. We can do all of those things all over the country.”
Since only about 61,000 people voted in the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2000, if AFSCME were to get even two-thirds of the 30,000 employees it represents in Iowa to participate in the caucuses, McEntee could lift Dean to his first victory of the primary season.
In Iowa, McEntee said, AFSCME will “probably spend close to a million dollars seeing that our people are educated on the issues and mobilized to go out to the caucuses.”
Reaching out to non-union people
But AFSCME also reaches out beyond its membership to run ads and mobilize voters using “volunteer hard money” raised from its members for “independent expenditures.”
“It doesn’t come out of dues, it doesn’t come out of the treasury. Members volunteer some of their wages to a ‘People Fund, which raises in a political cycle about $8 million or $9 million,” he said. “You can contact people that are outside the union for registration, education and mobilization. We’ll probably spend over a million dollars in independent expenditures in Iowa alone.”
The labor movement is badly split, with AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union backing Dean, while most of the industrial unions, such as the machinists, Teamsters, and steelworkers, are supporting former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who has been among organized labor’s most stalwart allies since he started serving in the House in 1977.
With only 33days until the Iowa caucuses, the animosity between Gephardt’s supporters and Dean’s has deepened with the debut this week of a new anti-Dean television ad, paid for by a group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values.
Using a photo of Osama bin Laden and sinister background music, the ad says, “There are those who wake up every morning determined to destroy Western civilization. Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead, but Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.”
The group airing the ad, which has not yet published its list of donors, is headed by former Ohio congressman Edward Feighan, who has donated $2,000 to Gephardt’s campaign.
Its treasurer, David Jones, is a former Gephardt fund-raiser.
Gephardt himself said Tuesday, “I wish they would reveal the donors to the organization, whoever they are.” He also said, “I wish they weren’t running the ads.”
Why is AFSCME backing Dean, instead of Gephardt, whose voting record on labor issues is well-nigh impeccable?
“It was much more than Iraq,” McEntee said. “It was Dean’s stand -– it was his stand,” he repeats, emphasizing the word “stand” –“He would stand up to Bush. Our people have been disappointed in Democrats in leadership particularly in 2002. Our activists believe they just gave Bush almost whatever he wanted, for example, on the tax bill. On all of these issues, on Iraq, on the economy, on health care, on education, Dean has been willing to stand up against Bush, stand up straight and talk against them.”
Why AFSCME rejected Gephardt
On the other hand, McEntee said, “Our people felt that Gephardt had been around the block a number of times,” he said. They “did not see him as a strong leader in the House. Look at what he did even on Iraq, when he went to the Rose Garden and stood behind Bush. But also he was rarely able to control the (House Democratic) caucus, compared to Nancy Pelosi.”
Asked to comment on this, Gephardt campaign spokesman Erik Smith said, “Howard Dean has been running a negative campaign against Dick Gephardt for a year. This is just one of his operatives attacking a man who carried the water for AFSCME and the labor movement every day of his congressional career.”
McEntee said his union also chose Dean because the former Vermont governor proved to the union that he and his team were revolutionizing fund-raising through aggressive Internet appeals that enabled Dean to opt out of the federal spending limits.
“George Bush will raise probably $200 million; Howard Dean will probably raise about $150 million,” McEntee said. Dean “is able to at least compete with Bush and not be defined by Bush” through GOP attack ads on television. “That’s a big thing,” McEntee said.
“If you look at Gephardt” – who is using federal matching funds and staying within federal spending limits – “probably after Iowa, he doesn’t have any money, right? Just like 1988.”
Gephardt spokesman Smith dismissed this as “Dean campaign talking points” and adds “McEntee has become nothing more than hatchet man for Howard Dean and it’s disappointing.”
Memories of 1960
McEntee has been around long enough to know that bruising Democratic primary battles are nothing new. Asked about the first campaign he worked on, McEntee summoned up memories of seeing John F. Kennedy appearing in Philadelphia in 1960.
“I’d never seen a more handsome man in my life. When he came into downtown Philadelphia in an open car, it was snowing and he had a blue cashmere coat on and he had reddish hair and the snow was coming down on him. It was incredible.”
Thanks to McEntee and other foot soldiers, JFK carried Pennsylvania over Richard Nixon by a bit more than 100,000 votes out of a total of five million cast.
“That was my first experience and it was a wonderful experience,” McEntee said.
And is Howard Dean going to lead Democrats to “a wonderful experience” next November, if he is the party’s nominee?
If he doesn’t, the union president joked in reply, “You’ll have to visit me in Guantanamo.”