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Are Democrats Losing Their Grip on the Union Hall?

The AFL-CIO's President, John J. Sweeney, had the business community sweating when he promised an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort in 2002. But when the ballots were counted, there was good news and bad news for labor. Yes, union workers turned out in near-record numbers--but fewer voted Democratic than in recent years.

Election Day surveys by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg show that his party's share of union members' congressional votes shrank to 58%, down from 64% in 2000. Most troublesome for Democrats is declining support in some polls among industrial unions, white workers, and younger members. Democratic-leaning unionists are facing resistance even from their families: Greenberg's poll showed that relatives of white union members favored Republicans, 47% to 46%.

AFL-CIO officials dispute Greenberg's findings but acknowledge their own polling shows a two-point drop in support for House Democrats from 70% in 2000 to 68%. The shift toward the GOP, while modest, is enough to give some Democrats flashbacks to the days of the old Reagan Democrats. With White House political guru Karl Rove aggressively courting culturally conservative, highly patriotic, blue-collar union members, Democrats fear that the drip, drip, drip of 2002 could become a gusher in 2004. "There's a cultural problem in the Democratic Party, and that is we exude weakness," says party strategist James Carville.

A tough stand against terrorism is a start. But Democrats will continue to face fierce competition for union votes if they can't articulate a coherent economic revival agenda. In 2002, argues Robert L. Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal think tank, "Democrats had literally nothing to say, except that the economy was in the pits, which most everyone already knew."

Without a compelling economic rationale for backing congressional Democrats, many union members decided to support a President they view quite favorably because of his toughness and plain-guy demeanor. "It was a very personal victory for George Bush," says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

It was also a victory with very real consequences for organized labor. Just nine days after the election, the White House Office of Management & Budget announced it was going to open up 850,000 federal jobs to private-sector competition. And on Nov. 19, all but eight Democratic senators voted with Bush to end union protections for 170,000 government workers in the new Homeland Security Dept.

An anti-labor binge by the Republican Right could create a backlash in union halls. But Democrats can't depend on GOP overreaching. A better strategy might be modeled on the success some Democratic candidates for state office had talking about kitchen-table issues. In Michigan, Democratic gubernatorial victor Jennifer M. Granholm pushed an aggressive economic-recovery plan--and carried the union vote by 72% to 27%, according to pollsters EPIC/MRA. Likewise, Pennsylvania's Edward G. Rendell garnered two-thirds of the rank and file's support, the Keystone Poll found.

Still, the Democrats are facing a continuing battle for the support of industrial unionists. At the same time that Rendell was winning big, three Republican congressional candidates were sweeping the union vote in western Pennsylvania's mining and mill towns.

Unless the Democrats can find a way to bring these workers home, they are likely to split their tickets for years. And that would be a huge victory for Rove, who is seeking to transform union members into swing voters rather than the straight-ticket Democrats their leaders want them to be. With the elections over, Washington lobbyists have begun playing the traditional game of guess-which-Administration-official-heads-for-the-exit-first. Leading the speculation: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who has fought the White House on clean air and arsenic standards in drinking water.

Associates say Whitman would prefer an ambassadorship. This spring, she jokingly told a Washington black-tie dinner that, in 2000, she was excited to hear she was on the short list for Vice-President, only to learn that she was on another list. "It turned out to be the short list of Republicans who care about the environment," Whitman cracked. A spokeswoman dismisses the rumors, but EPA insiders expect Whitman to resign by yearend.

If Whitman goes, business would want someone more sympathetic, like Josephine S. Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. But that would set off a firestorm of opposition from enviros, already bracing for a big shift at the Senate Environment Committee, where James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) will replace the very green James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.). One possibility is outgoing Michigan Governor John Engler, who has been pro-auto without alienating most moderates. More likely: David B. Struhs, who has built bridges between greens and business as Florida Governor Jeb Bush's environmental protection secretary. Struhs has another advantage: He's the brother-in-law of White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

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