Nancy Pelosi, a candidate for Democratic national chairman, accused organized labor yesterday of trying to defeat her with a heavy-handed, "antiwoman" campaign and called one of her rivals, Paul G. Kirk Jr., unqualified and too closely tied to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Pelosi charged at a breakfast with reporters that labor leaders have been muscling their representatives on the Democratic National Committee to support Kirk and expressed anger over reports that one labor official had referred to her as an "airhead" in conversations with other Democrats.
"I can take the knocks," said Pelosi, former California Democratic chairman. "But . . . they made me angry."
The charges have been simmering below the surface for the past few weeks and are likely to complicate the party's efforts to unite its various factions.
Kirk has been considered the front-runner in the chairmanship race, with Pelosi and former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford his principal rivals. A fourth candidate is Robert J. Keefe, veteran Washington political operative.
The DNC will meet Friday in Washington to pick a successor to Charles T. Manatt, whose term as chairman is expiring.
Pelosi said yesterday that John Perkins, head of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE), had referred to her as an "airhead" in a conversation with New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D). Cuomo has endorsed Pelosi.
"He has certainly not called her an airhead, a female airhead or a Baltimore airhead," Murray Seeger, AFL-CIO spokesman, said of Perkins. "We don't talk like that."
Cuomo said he had not spoken directly with Perkins about Pelosi. But John Iaccio, Cuomo's assistant for labor affairs, confirmed yesterday that Perkins had said "something like that" to him in a telephone conversation on Jan. 8.
Cuomo said he was concerned about the attacks on Pelosi because she is a woman. "I think what's happening -- and this disturbs me -- is that people have said a woman is a negative," he said. "That's the worst kind of retrogression."
Pelosi said the election of Kirk as party chairman would send "the wrong message" to parts of the country, especially the South, because Kirk is a former aide to Kennedy and has strong labor support.
"Is the party served well with a message of Kennedy association for 15 years and labor connections?" she asked. "I don't think that's looking to the future. I would tell that to Ted Kennedy right here and now."
She said Kirk has no qualifications for the job, other than his links to Kennedy. "I have credentials," she said. "Paul Kirk's credentials are 15 years with Teddy Kennedy."
Brian Lunde, Kirk's campaign manager, dismissed Pelosi's attacks on Kirk's Kennedy connection. "That was dealt with over a month ago," he said. "That's not a new charge."
Labor's role in the chairmanship fight has drawn increasing criticism recently, especially from some southern state Democratic chairmen.
Labor leaders met on Jan. 9 in Washington and decided not to endorse anyone for DNC chairmanship, Seeger said. But he said there was "an overwhelming consensus" for Kirk at the meeting. Since then, labor officials have been putting out the word to DNC members about the support for Kirk.
"It's gotten to where there are a lot of hard feelings," said one state chairman.
Some Democrats said yesterday that Pelosi's tactics reflected the fact that she was losing the race. "I don't consider that I've lost the race," she said. "It's important for this decision to be a clear one."