AFL-CIO Plots a Push for Democratic House
By Frank Swoboda
The two-year effort – the first time the AFL-CIO has not disbanded its political operations at the end of an election cycle – will focus on 40 to 60 key congressional districts in about 20 states, union strategists said. Labor will also aim to build up union support in California and six eastern and midwestern states that also could prove pivotal to any Democratic presidential candidate seeking to build a majority in the electoral college.
"We're trying to keep our people mobilized and engaged for the year 2000," said Gerald McEntee, president of the million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the chairman of the federation's political committee. A cadre of paid activists in targeted congressional districts will concentrate on bringing union households to the polls by organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, setting up voter registration drives and running issue advocacy campaigns.
Republicans hold only a six-seat majority in the House, and labor officials meeting here at annual mid-winter meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council felt the momentum that helped Democrats win five seats in 1998 would be lost if field personnel were pulled back. After previous elections, the political operations "would go flat on us" and a year later labor would have to rebuild, McEntee said.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who recently decided to forgo a presidential race in order to concentrate on winning back Democratic control in the House, endorsed the plan today after meeting for nearly an hour with the council, the 54-member policymaking body of the 13 million-member federation. Gephardt, who likely would become speaker if Democrats win the House, said past get-out-the vote efforts have come much too late in the campaign cycle. "The get-out-the-vote effort needs to be the whole two years," he said.
McEntee said labor's goal is to duplicate its effort in California last year, when unions beat back a conservative ballot initiative to restrict labor's political spending and helped elect Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "California was an incredible effort by the whole labor movement in an individual state," McEntee said.
AFL-CIO political leaders came up with the idea of a two-year, election-cycle budget during a one-day retreat last month called to focus on the 2000 election.
By keeping their political activists fully mobilized throughout the two years, the leadership said, labor also would be in a better position to help rally opposition to any effort to cut Social Security benefits and to influence critical state legislative elections for the reapportionment of state congressional districts after the 2000 census.
Although AFL-CIO officials would not give an official estimate of the size of the new two-year budget for its political operations, officials familiar with the spending plan said it would be roughly double the $21.5 million the federation spent in the 1998 elections. Approximately $14 million a year would come from an extension of the voluntary "Buck A Member" campaign that federation leaders approved last year for the 1998 midterm congressional elections, and another $7.5 million would come from the annual increase in political spending approved at the federation's last convention. The balance would come from "other sources within the federation," officials said.
McEntee said approximately three-fourths of the money will be spent on field operations, such as issue education and get-out-the-vote efforts, and the balance on media campaigns. He said this was about the same ratio as the 1998 election spending and a reversal of the spending ratio in 1996, when the federation raised $35 million for a one-year effort.
Officials said they found in the 1998 campaign that media campaigns were less effective than one-on-one contact with voters. As one example, strategists pointed to the activists who went door-to-door to 40,000 union homes during the hard-fought Nevada Senate race, which Democratic incumbent Harry Reid won by fewer than 500 votes of the more than 430,000 cast.
The budget approved by the federation today does not include money and manpower spent by individual unions on education and get-out-the-vote efforts – an amount estimated at between $10 million and $12 million.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters the primary focus of the political effort over the next two years "is going to be on grass-roots mobilization." Sweeney said labor mobilized 25,000 activists in California last year, adding, "If we can do it in California we can certainly do it in other states."
Union strategists declined to identify the 20 states that will be targeted for congressional races. But officials did say that in addition to California, a critical state in any presidential election, labor would also focus its efforts on New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. In each of those six states, union officials said, the labor vote made the difference in whether President Clinton carried the state in 1996.
"We're talking about an education process for a whole group of activists," McEntee said. He said labor has learned in the last two elections that union members don't like to be told how to vote, but that they are quite willing to listen when their unions explain the issues. He added: "They get it when you explain the issues."
A number of key Democratic leaders are scheduled to appear before the executive council this week, including two presidential contenders – Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley. Other politicians paying homage to labor this week include House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-N.D.).
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