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2 Powerful Unions Set to Endorse Dean Today

Government worker and service employee groups respond to the Democrat's grass-roots work ethic, errors by his opponents.

November 12, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Dogged grass-roots campaigning, missteps by rivals and the shifting ideological climate in the Democratic Party all contributed to the campaign coup Howard Dean is expected to announce today: the joint endorsement from two of the most politically potent unions in the AFL-CIO.

The anticipated support from the 1.6-million-member Service Employees International Union and the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will cap months of intense behind-the-scenes competition among the Democratic presidential contenders and could stand as an enduring turning point in the contest.

For Dean, the windfall seems equal parts the result of his own hard work at courting the SEIU, one of the most liberal unions in organized labor, and a failure by his opponents to seize opportunities to gain favor with AFSCME, whose pragmatic president, Gerald W. McEntee, has been focused on finding the Democrat with the best chance to beat President Bush.

While Dean's support for universal health care and opposition to the war in Iraq make him a natural fit for SEIU's backing, AFSCME's expected endorsement has stunned Democratic and union operatives. All year, McEntee has stressed his desire to find a Democratic nominee with credibility as commander-in-chief -- a threshold he had earlier suggested the former Vermont governor might have trouble crossing because of his views on Iraq.

This year, McEntee had clashed with SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, a potential rival for leadership in the union movement, over a labor project to turn out Democratic voters in 2004. Yet last week, when the SEIU was poised to endorse Dean, it was McEntee who called Stern asking him to delay the announcement to see if the two unions could act together.

Today's joint announcement will probably reverberate far more powerfully than an endorsement from either union alone. "This was Gerry's idea," Stern said. "He appreciated that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts."

The announcement is expected after the AFSCME board meets in Washington this morning to finalize its support of Dean; the SEIU's board endorsed Dean on Thursday, according to sources.

Both endorsements have been among the most coveted in organized labor. Last spring, all the candidates trooped to Iowa for a forum AFSCME sponsored, and in September, they reconvened in Washington to pitch themselves to SEIU members.

Of the two unions, the SEIU established the more elaborate process for settling on a nominee. It asked the candidates to prepare videos for the union board explaining their positions on health care (a particular priority since almost half its members work in the health-care industry) and labor law reform. Stern also encouraged the contenders to meet with local union members around the country.

Union officials say Dean took that advice more to heart than any of the other Democrats; at the board meeting when the union voted to endorse Dean last week, Stern joked that the candidate "had talked to some of my key leaders more than I have in the past six months."

The union is mostly low-income and heavily minority; Dean's support has tilted toward better-educated, more-affluent white voters. Yet Dean made a strong connection with SEIU activists, campaign and union officials say. His emphasis on expanding access to health care -- and his background as a physician -- resonated with many of them.

Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq also helped him with the union's left-leaning membership, as did his argument that Democrats had been too timid in confronting Bush. "People want to hear somebody who expresses their values and unfortunately ... too many Democrats have tended to muddle their message," said Eliseo Medina, the Los Angeles-based executive vice president of the SEIU for the Western states.

Finally, the broader ethos of Dean's campaign -- with its stress on grass-roots organizing -- struck a chord among SEIU leaders, who emphasize such efforts. "Dean's message sounded like a union organizer's message," said Stern.

In September, Dean's strength was evident when the SEIU gathered 1,500 of its most politically active members in Washington to hear from the candidates, as well as to watch short movies of the contenders that the unions had dispatched independent filmmakers to create. Dean won a members' straw poll both before the candidates spoke and after they had made their presentations.

From that point, no one else appeared seriously in contention. The SEIU scheduled a meeting of its board for last Thursday with the intention of endorsing Dean and announcing the decision. Then came the call from McEntee to Stern.

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