As seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates pack their bags for Saturday’s
AFSCME-sponsored debate in Iowa, union President Gerald McEntee said his organization will base its endorsement primarily on a person’s ability to defeat President Bush.
McEntee said the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is following a similar strategy employed in 1992, when it endorsed little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton over a loyal union ally, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), in the Democratic primary.
“[Clinton] was ready for prime time the first day out of the box,” McEntee said in an interview this week. “We said to ourselves, ‘This is our guy. You know.’”
The nation’s unions were not able to collectively settle on a consensus candidate early on in 1992, leaving each organization to individually pledge their support for separate candidates in the primary. It appears this scenario is going to play out again in 2004.
The backing of the AFL-CIO of a sole candidate in the primary would grant the individual the political resources of the powerful union. McEntee said the only candidate who has a chance to win the AFL-CIO endorsement next year is Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), but added this is unlikely to happen.
“If he can’t get it nobody can get it, but I believe it will be very, very hard to get it,” said McEntee, who also serves as the political education chairman of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 65 unions representing 13 million workers. “And then you will see unions going in different directions.”
To earn AFSCME’s endorsement and the votes of its 1.4 million members, McEntee said a candidate will need to outline a winning primary and general election plan similar to the way Clinton did in 1992.
“When they do come in … we are going to request they do bring their campaign staffs with them and be able to show us this road map, this electability and how they are able to demonstrate they can get there,” he said.
Harkin didn’t win AFSCME’s endorsement in 1992 because he was unable to show a winning strategy. “Love him then and love him now, but it was all about electability,” McEntee said.
The union boss would not tip his hat as to which candidate AFSCME is leaning toward, and is careful to watch his words after saying in February that Sen. John Kerry
(D-Mass.) “would have the best chance” out of all the candidates to beat Bush on foreign policy issues.
Without gushing over individual candidates, McEntee still believes that Democrats need to boost their standing with voters on foreign policy and homeland security matters if they hope to defeat Bush in 2004.
“Democrats have to find a way to at least be able to be on some level … of where Bush is in the minds of many Americans in relationship to fear and terrorism and things like that,” McEntee said. “It was when I said it, and I think it is going to be … a big piece of the election.”
McEntee doesn’t back away from his assertion that Kerry might have “gravitas” to take Bush on regarding foreign policy issues, especially given the Senator’s background as a decorated Vietnam War veteran. But he also notes Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) “has come out stronger, stronger and stronger on the issue of Iraq and terrorism,” while Gephardt is “making steps in that direction.”
So far, McEntee said he thinks Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) joins Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman as the presidential candidates who have the inside track to scoring labor endorsements in the sprint towards the primaries.
“They are obviously the top tier and top four that will have individual support in the labor movement,” he said.
The AFL-CIO will meet in August to decide if at least two-thirds of its member unions can agree on supporting one candidate.
AFSCME, one of the largest unions under the AFL-CIO umbrella, has agreed not to endorse a candidate before the summer meeting.
“I think a more reasonable timetable would be September [or] October, giving all the candidates enough time to be out there and allowing us to go through this entire process,” he said.
Veteran Democratic political operative Michael Meehan said all of the candidates are desperately vying for labor’s backing, especially the support of AFSCME — which has a very active membership in Iowa, the first caucus state.
“Given the size of field and the relatively few voters who will decide, having the hand-to-hand, door-to-door political expertise of AFSCME could easily mean the difference of who has a strong showing and who is the outright winner,” said Meehan, vice president for campaigns and elections of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Ted Westervelt, vice president of Erickson & Co., a Democratic fundraising shop not affiliated with any presidential campaign, agreed.
“The implications go way beyond fundraising for unions like AFSCME,” he said. “These guys have a record of getting people to the polls by word of mouth alone through their membership.”
When AFSCME does endorse a candidate, McEntee said the union plans to put its full resources behind the campaign including mobilizing volunteers and helping out financially.
“The mobilization has to happen earlier than ever before,” he said. “We know it is successful, but we have to make some changes based on what we were able to do in 2002.”
The money part will be trickier given the uncertainty of the current campaign finance laws and the many soft-money accounts the union is involved in.
“We have upped our goals and strengthened our abilities to raise hard money, because regardless of McCain-Feingold, regardless of the Supreme Court, the hard money is good no matter where you go or what you do,” he said.
At the debate this weekend, McEntee said 800 AFSCME members will be able to ask the candidates questions on education, health care and privatization issues. Seven of the candidates will appear on stage, and Kerry will appear via satellite from New Hampshire. Lieberman will not participate as he observes the Sabbath.
As for why AFSCME has decided to possibly choose a Democratic candidate that might not have the strongest union record of all, McEntee points directly to the White House.
“As bad as it was under [former President] Ronald Reagan, this crowd is really hard, man,” he said. “If you give them four more years, we have got grave, grave difficulties.
“The election is probably the most important election we have had in such a very long time,” he added.