By Zachary A. Goldfarb and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 28, 2006
CLEVELAND -- On a recent Saturday afternoon, a team of canvassers armed with handheld digital devices spread out across the city. Their aim was to urge residents to support a ballot initiative requiring an increase in Ohio's minimum wage.
But one beneficiary could be someone hoping for a new job that pays a good bit better than minimum wage: Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who is running to unseat Sen. Mike DeWine (R), the two-term incumbent, on Nov. 7.
"Congress has raised its own pay 10 times while the minimum wage stayed the same," Brown told a crowd last weekend at East Cleveland Community Theater.
In 2004, Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere tended to benefit from ballot initiatives. Measures to ban same-sex marriage, for example, passed easily. In the process, some election analysts said, the measures revved the conservative base to help Republican candidates from President Bush on down.
In 2006, Democrats are hoping to prove that ballot politics can work in the other direction. Measures to increase the minimum wage are before voters in six states. Four of those, Arizona, Ohio, Missouri and Montana, feature close Senate races with a GOP incumbent. In Missouri, moreover, a measure backing stem cell research is ahead in the polls -- which Democrats say could lift their candidate.
In Ohio, recent polls show that at least 70 percent of voters support an initiative to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.85 and index it to inflation. A coalition of labor unions, faith groups and liberal activists is working to pass it. If their efforts also pump up voter turnout for Democrats, Brown said, he is happy for the help.
"Some people will vote because of the minimum wage," Brown said in an interview. "I think it will help bring out voters. I'm guessing those voters will vote for Democrats. It's up to us to make sure they do."
Eight states have ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage, but their impact may be less than in previous years. Few of these states have competitive Senate or House races. And in those that do, such as Virginia and Tennessee, the issue is not as prominent as it was around the country in 2004.
In Virginia, for example, Sen. George Allen (R) supports a proposal against same-sex marriage while former Navy secretary James Webb (D) opposes such a ban. But only a slim majority of the electorate favored the initiative in a recent Washington Post poll, and the Senate race has been dominated by topics such as the war in Iraq and the character of the candidates.
The Missouri stem cell initiative, which the state's Senate candidates disagree on, would amend the state constitution to ensure that any form of research that is legal in the United States cannot be restricted in Missouri. State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) supports the measure, and Sen. James M. Talent (R) opposes it. The initiative is being publicized with more than $15 million from Jim and Virginia Stowers, a Kansas City couple who are benefactors of a vast medical research center.
"There are many people in this state . . . [whose] politics might be different except for stem cell research," McCaskill said in an interview. A recent poll suggested sizable support for the initiative: 58 percent.
But mobilized against the proposal is Missouri's antiabortion movement, a key constituency for Talent, who is neck-and-neck with McCaskill in recent polling.
Advocates of increasing the minimum wage say the issue can be framed as more than economics, echoing as a values issue in the same way abortion and same-sex marriage do. Almost 2 million people make the minimum wage or less, according to the Labor Department. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington think tank, estimates that the real buying power of $10,700 -- about what a full-time minimum-wage worker makes in a year, before taxes -- is the lowest in half a century.
"Rewarding hard work with a fair wage is not just an abstract pocketbook economic issue but a statement of values," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which promotes using ballot strategy for liberal causes. "While the left usually talks in dry economic terms, the right made a concerted effort to copyright values -- meaning a set of divisive, scapegoating issues. The popularity of the minimum-wage initiatives is a testament to how powerfully progressive values speak to Americans."
In many states, labor is taking the lead on the minimum-wage effort. The AFL-CIO's minimum-wage work is part of its $40 million operation to reach more than 12 million people in union households in 21 states.
Republicans are watching the minimum-wage strategy. The GOP took steps earlier this year to avoid a showdown when Congress tried to raise the minimum wage. Democrats balked when the GOP tried to tie the increase to a tax cut. Aware of emerging minimum-wage efforts, legislators in Arkansas and Michigan raised their states' minimums.
Republicans are banking that their turnout effort this cycle will overcome any enthusiasm among the Democratic base over the minimum wage and other issues.
Mike DuHaime, the Republican National Committee's political director, said he does not discount Democrats' turnout operation. "They have some very good allies like labor and 527 organizations who have a proven history of turning people out," he said. But he added that he is confident that races will hinge on the quality of candidates.
The minimum wage resonates in Ohio because thousands of factory jobs that paid well have been lost and replaced with low-paying service and retail jobs. Since 2000, Ohio's economy has lost more than 200,000 jobs, government statistics show. Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal think tank, estimates that increasing the state's minimum wage would benefit about 700,000 low-wage workers.
Cathy Madewall, 49, an administrative assistant in Cincinnati, said she heard about Let Justice Roll, a faith-based effort in Ohio to raise the minimum wage, at her church. She has not been active in politics in the past, but she has spent hours working for the minimum-wage campaign. And she will vote for a Democratic slate this fall.
"It's a huge issue for a lot of people who are affected by poverty," she said. "Sometimes they're busy working and they don't have time to vote. I think they'll make time to vote."
The idea of pursuing the minimum-wage strategy in Ohio was born after the 2004 election. Ohio Senate Minority Leader C.J. Prentiss, who had tried unsuccessfully to pass minimum-wage legislation, was taken aback by the support for the initiative against same-sex marriage from the GOP base and even African Americans who would ordinarily vote for Democrats.
"We looked at the minimum wage as something that would make sense -- not only energizing the base but also the right and just thing to do," said Prentiss, one of the leaders of the Ohio minimum-wage effort. "It has the same ring for me as for people who are passionate about defining marriage between a man and a woman."
Now, with 10 days till the election, things are looking rosy for Buckeye Democrats. The minimum-wage initiative is likely to pass. Rep. Ted Strickland (D) has a decisive lead in the gubernatorial race over Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R), and Brown has been ahead of DeWine in recent polls.
But it is by no means a sealed deal for Democrats, especially in the Senate race. Some say the initiative might not be linked strongly with Democrats. The measure has widespread support, and DeWine voted for the minimum-wage increase in Congress this year.
In an interview, DeWine said that he supports the minimum-wage initiative and that "it's certainly possible" the Democratic strategy of using the issue to mobilize their base will work. But he cautioned that there are several initiatives on the ballot, "and it's hard to tell what's going to play out. . . . Turnout is a very complex thing. It's nuanced, and you never really know how things will turn out until it's over."
What's more, he said, the GOP base has been growing in intensity as the campaign enters its final stage. "I think it's kicked in pretty hard in the last 10 days or so," DeWine said this week, adding that terrorism and the prospect of Supreme Court appointments are major motivating factors.
Paul Hanrahan, a software programmer in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, will vote for the minimum-wage initiative next month. "It will get people off the welfare rolls," he said. "If you give them a minimum wage, maybe people will be able to take care of themselves."
But Hanrahan is no Democrat: He intends to vote down the Republican line on Nov. 7, mainly because, he said, the GOP is more sympathetic to religion and traditional family values.
With just over a week left in the campaign, Brown strikes the minimum-wage chord hard at nearly every appearance. Recently, he addressed the Service Employees International Union Local 3, and his talk left no doubt in the mind of Anton Farmby, a Local 3 officer, about what the impact of the initiative will be on the Senate race.
"I think Sherrod Brown and all the members of the Democratic ticket will ride on the coattails of the minimum wage," he said.