A few days earlier at a campaign stop in Iowa, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called for the expansion of apprenticeship programs that provide viable career pathways without a college degree, saying: “I want to challenge everybody in this room to understand that there is dignity in all work and career professions.”
And “Dignity of Work” is the name of a tour of early-voting states being taken by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as he contemplates a run for the White House. Brown argues that while other Democrats mention the dignity of work and workers, he would make the phrase's sentiment the centerpiece of a presidential campaign.
“I won in states like Ohio because of who I am and what I fight for every day, which is dignity of work,” said Brown, who has said he’ll decide next month whether to officially enter the race.
As Democrats try to better talk about and to working-class voters — especially the white working-class voters who were key to President Trump’s unexpected win in 2016 — the phrase “dignity of work” keeps coming up. Brown says he has used the phrase and its idea throughout his entire political career; other Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden, have as well. It's a phrase deeply rooted in the Catholic Church's teachings, and Brown's aides say that in addition to those roots, he has long been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s embrace of the sentiment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains its message in this way: “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”
Republicans, too, have used the phrase. But in their case, it’s often invoked while calling for reductions to welfare benefits so that the poor are pushed to work harder and thus, the suggestion goes, gain dignity.
As governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker frequently spoke of the “dignity of work” as he and Republican lawmakers slashed the powers of public unions and gutted state welfare programs. He said in a statement last year: “We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work.” In an op-ed last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue advocated further restricting access to food stamps — with the blessing of the president — and concluded: “This restores the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population, while it is also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.” And Trump has used the phrase in promoting apprenticeships over college degrees, saying in 2017: “There is dignity in every honest job, and there is nobility in every honest worker.”
Trump’s win in 2016 is closely tied to his success in more than 200 counties that voted for Barack Obama and then for Trump. These rural, heavily white counties are cloistered in eastern Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin, central Michigan and northern Ohio — places where the president’s promises to bring back industrial jobs and revitalize rural America resonated. Democrats like Brown argue that the president has done little to help these Americans and that their party should try to win these voters back. These are messages that, properly delivered, can cut across racial lines and appeal to all workers.
On the campaign trail, many Democratic candidates have carefully embraced some of the same promises that Trump did in 2016 — especially when it comes to crafting trade policy, limiting spending on foreign wars and improving life for all Americans — while outlining how they would achieve these things and questioning the president’s progress thus far.
In announcing their presidential runs, many Democratic candidates have talked up their own humble upbringings or their understanding of the hardships facing working families. A sampling:
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) formally announced her candidacy outside a historic factory in a working-class Massachusetts city, the site of a major labor strike a century ago.
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) talks much more often about growing up in Upstate New York than about her years as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, and on a recent trip to Iowa, she assured Midwesterners that she knows “a bit about how to win in a place like this.”
- Former Obama administration official Julián Castro announced his candidacy in the working-class San Antonio neighborhood where he grew up, arriving on a public bus and noting that presidential contenders usually don’t come from neighborhoods such as his.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced her candidacy near the Mississippi River as a heavy snow fell, saying: “I’m running for this job for every person who wants their work recognized and rewarded.”
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced his candidacy in a video this week, denouncing the “grotesque level of wealth inequality” that has led to some workers making “starvation wages” and the elderly not having enough savings to survive.
When Brown traveled to Iowa this month, he mostly visited counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016. When asked whether the senator would cancel some of his events because of intensely cold temperatures, aides noted that most Iowans still had to show up to work that morning despite the weather, so the senator would do the same.
In meeting with Iowans, Brown made clear that he “grew up in town” in Ohio and had a privileged childhood — and he often deferred to his wife, journalist Connie Schultz, who told Iowans about how her parents broke their bodies down by working so hard in hopes that their children would not have to do the same. Schultz said her father, a longtime union member, once called Brown “us in a tie.”
Brown’s audiences were heavily white — even when he held a roundtable discussion in Perry, where about 37 percent of the population is Hispanic and many residents work at a nearby meat-processing plant. On his third day in the state, he began to regularly mention that although conditions are not good for all workers, they are especially bad for women and minorities.
Even though Brown has been talking to workers and union members throughout his political career, reporters could watch as the senator seemed to edit himself in real time in what appeared to be an appeal to blue-collar workers. For example: Brown often tells the story of meeting a woman in Youngstown, Ohio, who said that she wants to stay alive long enough to qualify for Medicare — and he notes that people should instead want to stay alive to spend more time with their grandchildren or go on big vacations. At an early stop, Brown suggested a vacation to Paris. At a later stop, he switched to suggesting a trip to Chicago.
Brown explained the switch in a statement on Thursday night, saying: “Actually, I change it up all the time for variety. But the idea that only certain types of vacations appeal to certain types of workers is offensive, and that conclusion is an example of why so many people in this country feel looked down on. Paris or Chicago or anywhere else, the point is that people who’ve worked hard all their lives ought to be able to take a vacation wherever they choose and spend time with their grandkids instead of worrying about their healthcare.”
During a panel discussion with union leaders in Clinton, Iowa — in a county that flipped from Obama to Trump — Brown listened as local labor leaders and organizers detailed the challenges facing Iowa workers: stagnant incomes, low starting wages, a state attempt to close down a training center, dramatic limits to collective bargaining rights, workers' compensation that covers less and less, politicians who don’t seem to care and a general lack of respect.
At one point, Tracy Leone of Teamsters Local 238 reflected on Brown’s use of the phrase “dignity of work” and, in the process, summed up many of the frustrations felt in places such as Clinton.
“It made me think: There is no dignity of work right now in the country,” Leone said, noting that a person’s job is much of his or her identity. “I meet you. ‘Hi, my name’s Tracy. What do you do for a living?’ Right? It defines us. But everybody that I know and am working with are in this precarious situation. I know a guy who is an accountant — company got bought up by a foreign company, so there’s nobody locally who cares about the workers, right? They make decisions, they don’t know them as people, they know them as an item on a spreadsheet.”
Brown cut in and sympathized: “And a cost to be minimized.”
“Right,” Leone said, voicing the frustration that many of the candidates are noting. “You’re not a human being, you’re just a data point . . . So when we think about the dignity of work anymore in this country, I think all of us know people who get disrespected on a daily basis. And the one thing that we had, that gave us a little bit of dignity, are our unions, a voice in the job … Probably, if we go around the room, everybody will have their story about some bad boss somewhere who just treated them like they’re disposable.”
David Weigel in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
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Who might you be willing to vote for instead? (UMass, 240 of 600 New Hampshire registered voters)
Sen. Kamala Harris — 28%
Former vice president Joe Biden — 26%
Sen. Cory Booker — 24%
Sen. Elizabeth Warren — 22%
Sen. Bernie Sanders — 21%
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke — 20%
Sen. Amy Klobuchar — 13%
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — 10%
Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg — 10%
Former HUD secretary Julián Castro - 8%
Don’t know — 14%
Other — 1%
With all the usual caveats about how it's early, 82 percent of Democrats and independents who said they'd vote in the Democratic primary said “yes” when asked whether there was any chance they'd vote for someone else. While Biden and Sanders had the most first-place votes, lots of other candidates registered as a possible second choice for those willing to pick one.
Kirsten Gillibrand. Her campaign got a viral moment — though the true star of it was the University of Iowa student who just wanted to get some ranch to eat with her pizza.
Eric Swalwell. The California congressman is heading back to New Hampshire on Sunday and Monday.
Tulsi Gabbard. On “The View,” she took heat from Meghan McCain over her views on U.S. involvement in regime changes and said that although Syria's Bashar al-Assad was a “brutal dictator,” U.S. actions have hurt the Syrian people.
Bernie Sanders. The most recent entrant into the 2020 race as well as President Trump's campaign sent competing fundraising pleas to supporters, pointing to the other as a reason to give more.
Kamala Harris. She ate lunch at Harlem's iconic Sylvia's restaurant with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said the two talked about criminal justice reform.
Bernie Sanders’s second campaign: Strong start, big challenges ahead, by Sean Sullivan
The senator from Vermont's fundraising haul in the first 24 hours of his campaign is a sign of strength in his second run for the Democratic nomination — but he's facing a very different field from his last bid.
With Evangelicals Behind Him, Vice President Mike Pence Takes Prominent Role in Foreign Policy, by Jessica Donati and Peter Nicholas
Remember Vice President Pence? He flits in and out of the public spotlight, depending on — frankly — the president's mood and needs. Two years into the Trump presidency, two Wall Street Journal reporters studied the vice president's role thus far, especially when it comes to foreign policy and keeping evangelical voters happy.
States scramble to head off future Medicaid shortfalls, by Paige Winfield Cunningham
The states that expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act are coming up with a variety of ways to pay as the federal contribution shrinks.
The Mercury News this month explored two major influences on Harris's life: Her mother Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher from India, and her father Donald Harris, a retired Stanford University economics professor from Jamaica who studied income inequality.
The 2018 campaign will stretch out a little longer: The North Carolina State Board of Elections has ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after Republican candidate Mark Harris said he misspoke under oath. From my colleague Amy Gardner:
“It appears to me the irregularities and improprieties occurred to such an extent that they tainted the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness,” said the board chairman, Bob Cordle, shortly before the five-member panel voted unanimously to throw out the November results between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready. “I believe the people of North Carolina deserve a fair election and deserve to have their votes counted properly.”
Harris said he is recovering from a serious infection that led to sepsis and two strokes, which in turn affected his memory. The episode made him realize, he testified, that he was not prepared for the “rigors” of the evidentiary hearing. He called for a new election, then promptly excused himself from the proceeding.
“I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said, eliciting gasps from the hearing room in Raleigh. “It’s become clear to me that public confidence in the 9th District has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
On Wednesday, Harris’s son, a federal prosecutor, said he had warned his father about the tactics of an operative in Bladen County. Harris hired him anyway, and that operative is now at the center of an alleged ballot-tampering scheme.
... five days until Chicago's mayoral election
... five days until New York's public advocate special election
... 366 days until Nevada's presidential caucuses