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Workplace Now Terrain of Politics

October 29, 2004|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

PELLA, Iowa — In this week's frenzied competition to boost voter turnout, the quiet effort of companies like Vermeer Manufacturing could prove crucial for the Bush campaign.

Vermeer, a family-owned industrial and agricultural equipment maker, is urging its 1,700 employees to vote -- and is providing them with industry-prepared election guides to help them decide how to cast their ballots.

The guides include candidates' positions on specific legislation and score lawmakers on the percentage of the time they voted with business. Republicans tend to score well in such "key vote" surveys; Democrats do not.

Sen. John F. Kerry received a zero score, for example, a point made repeatedly by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, which encourages Vermeer and its 13,000 other member companies to distribute the candidate summaries.

In elections past, large companies expressed their political preferences in cash, often with "soft money" checks written to parties and advocacy groups running issue ads.

Now, with campaign finance reform limiting those contributions and expenditures, thousands of employers are going grass-roots.

These direct contacts with employees in battleground states could undercut the economic message that Kerry and other Democrats are using to woo working-class voters and boost turnout of those who give the nod to Bush.

The business campaign could prove critical in such states as Iowa, where Democrat Al Gore won narrowly in 2000 but Kerry is struggling. Recent polls show the race there deadlocked.

To elect "business-friendly" candidates, the manufacturers group partnered with the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, four years ago to show companies how to talk politics with their workers. The so-called Prosperity Project had one full-time field staffer.

This year, the project has 80 field organizers in 14 targeted states, including six in Iowa. More than 700 companies and trade groups have joined, up from 184 in 2002. The list includes hundreds of small- and medium-sized companies like Vermeer and more than half of the largest 50 multinational firms in the country.

Separately, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have launched voter education efforts that are equally ambitious and more pointedly critical of the Democratic ticket.

At the AFL-CIO, officials say they are unfazed by the corporate effort to steal a page from labor's get-out-the-vote playbook. Even this year's ramped-up business campaign pales next to union outreach in its scope and credibility with workers, they say.

At Vermeer, a nonunion plant, the company's e-mail and in-house newsletters direct employees to an elaborate website that uses an interactive template developed by BIPAC. The site provides information on voter registration and absentee balloting and detailed descriptions of candidates for state and federal office.

The language and the presentations are evenhanded, reflecting BIPAC's oft-stated commitment to a nonpartisan approach. But the linked voting charts evaluate incumbents' positions on tax, liability reform, free trade, healthcare and other legislative priorities for business and assigns a score at the bottom.

Vermeer, whose chief executive, Mary Andringa, is a National Assn. of Manufacturers board member, was not active in get-out-the-vote efforts in previous elections, nor did the firm donate to parties.

But the 56-year-old company founded by her father has been rocked by an economic downturn that pared about half its workforce a couple of years ago.

"We know our industry and our jobs are dependent on the domestic economy and the overseas market," she says. "We need to do what we can to help get people informed."

Andringa believes the Bush administration "is trying to help business." She won't push her personal views on her employees, she says, but wants them to be informed on issues that affect the company -- and the jobs it offers.

She ticks off a list of federal actions that could benefit Vermeer: passage of energy, highway and tort-reform bills. She cites benefits already accruing from tax credits for research and development and equipment depreciation as well as administration forest policy, which has boosted sales of the company's brush chippers and organic grinders that turn tree stumps and limbs into mulch.

After growing slowly in the two previous election cycles, such employer activism has entered the mainstream in 2004. Companies that do not communicate with workers about political issues have become the exception, amounting to a quiet revolution in the way business conducts itself in the political world.

"If everything goes well, this project will have generated 20 million voter contacts before election day," says John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who was recently named head of the manufacturers association.

Business, he adds, is finally adopting some of the tactics long used by labor but applying them with more subtlety.

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