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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Gephardt & Co. Look to Service Sector for Coveted Union Label

May 19, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

Des Moines — Des Moines

Poll results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Fund-raising totals. Lists of endorsements in the key early states.

All measure the strength of the contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. But there's another number worth watching: 8.8 million.

That number is the key to capturing what could be an invaluable asset in the race: the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Under its rules, the AFL-CIO will only endorse a candidate if unions representing two-thirds of its roughly 13.2 million members agree. So to obtain the labor federation's blessing, one of the Democrats will have to win support from unions whose membership adds up to 8.8 million.

Since the labor federation established this process two decades ago, only two candidates have crossed that threshold: Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. The two cases symbolize the opportunity and peril in labor's embrace. Both men won the nomination. But labor's endorsement helped cement an image of Mondale as an old-style Democrat beholden to special interests that hurt him badly in the general election. Gore managed to gain labor's support without losing his independent image. That's the trick the 2004 Democrats need to manage too.

With this year's Democratic field so evenly divided, the unions would play a commanding role if they could back a single candidate. But top union officials, including the president of the federation, John Sweeney, say they don't yet see evidence that any Democrat can reach the two-thirds threshold. Absent such a consensus, the unions will inevitably divide their endorsements among the candidates, diluting their influence.

Many union officials believe only one candidate even has a chance to reach the two-thirds figure: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). The game then for the other Democrats isn't so much to win the AFL-CIO's endorsement as it is to deny the prize to Gephardt. And in that quiet but intense struggle, the critical decisions may rest with the presidents of the federation's two largest members: Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, and Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.

The two men are in such a pivotal position because of their potential to either break or solidify the stalemate emerging in the labor federation. The big industrial and building trade unions with protectionist leanings have enough strength to block an endorsement of any Democrat who supports free trade -- a camp that includes all of the leading contenders except Gephardt. But those blue-collar unions, which are likely to endorse Gephardt, don't have enough members anymore to lift him on their own to the two-thirds threshold.

To get there, Gephardt will need support from some of the large service-sector unions, such as the SEIU and AFSCME, who together account for one-fifth of the federation's membership. Conversely, both to block Gephardt and to offset the help the industrial unions will provide him even if the AFL-CIO doesn't make a unified endorsement, the other candidates need support from the SEIU, AFSCME, and other service-sector unions, such as the teachers'.

Which helps explain why all of the Democratic candidates appeared at an AFSCME forum McEntee moderated in Des Moines on Saturday. And why all are likely to clear their calendar for the SEIU conference Stern wants them to address in September.

In interviews last week, McEntee and Stern each made clear that no candidate has emerged as a clear favorite for their union's endorsement -- although each established a top tier.

Half of the SEIU's 1.3 million members work in health care, and Stern said that issue has become "an all-pervasive, unifying [concern] in the union." It's not surprising, then, that the three candidates who have released plans to provide near-universal coverage top his list: Gephardt, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "Gephardt catapulted himself back into people's vision with his health-care plan," Stern says. "And the more Dean and Kerry continue to work the issue, the more they come onto our radar screen." As for Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, he says, "They haven't found their niche."

In the SEIU's decision, Stern suggests, the candidates' agendas will matter more than the union's assessment of their chances against President Bush in the general election. "The ability to win is important, but in our union, not at all costs," he says. By contrast, at AFSCME, McEntee says "a major ingredient is the electability of the candidate. How do you get there? What kind of money are you going to raise?"

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