Howard Dean's Presidential ambitions are poised to get a major lift on Nov. 6 when the AFL-CIO's largest union, the 1.3 million member Service Employees International Union, is set to endorse him, BusinessWeek has learned. The SEIU's action, coming shortly after Dean won pledges from two small unions, the International Union of Painters and the California Teachers Assn., goes a long way toward completing the transformation of the former Vermont governor from a niche candidate backed by limousine liberals, antiwar activists, and tech-savvy young people into a mainstream candidate who can also connect with blue-collar America. Says SEIU President Andy Stern: "It's clear that Dean has gained the most support amongst our members and local leaders."
The SEIU's move would effectively kill AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney's efforts to gather labor behind Dean rival Representative Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). Until the painters and the teachers acted on Oct. 27, Gephardt, a staunch union ally during his quarter-century in Congress, had a virtual lock on labor leaders. But with the exception of the Teamsters and the United Food & Commercial Workers, most of the 20 unions that have come out for the St. Louis lawmaker so far are smaller or less politically powerful ones.
They are also mostly industrial unions, which feel the strongest debt to Gephardt. Many larger service-sector unions have been holding back, willing to sacrifice loyalty to Gephardt to be on the winning team.
Gephardt's problem is even greater among rank-and-file voters, many of whom are responding to Dean's fierce, unapologetic partisanship. An early October poll of likely Democratic caucus voters in Michigan, a must-win state for Gephardt, showed Dean with twice as much support among union members. Says Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi: "Ours has always been a bottom-up campaign, and we're doing very well with the rank and file."
The SEIU's endorsement, due to be formalized at a Nov. 6 meeting of its 63-person executive board, would shift the labor winds decisively to Dean. He could get an even bigger boost if the 1.3-million member American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees swings behind him. AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee considered backing Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), then flirted with retired General Wesley Clark. But insiders say Clark's early missteps soured McEntee, who was the first major union leader to back Bill Clinton in 1992 and who wants to play kingmaker again. McEntee was miffed when Clark decided not to campaign actively in Iowa, where AFSCME's 28,000 members spread across all 99 counties could make a crucial difference in the Jan. 19 caucuses.
Now, AFSCME is seriously considering Dean, as are several other unions, including the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, insiders say. "Iowa is a race between Gephardt and Dean, and Gerry [McEntee] can really help deliver there," says Washington labor consultant Vic Kamber. If more unions come on board, their clout could help give Dean an edge in contests beyond Iowa. Maybe the decisive edge.
By Aaron Bernstein in Washington