Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Edwards Courts Unions Heading into ‘08

By Marie Horrigan New York Times Published: January 4, 2007

Coming out of a 2004 campaign year in which he staged an upstart bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and ended up on the ticket as the party’s vice presidential running mate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards could have bided his time before committing to another White House try in 2008.

But Edwards, who is independently wealthy from his past career as a successful trial lawyer, hardly left the national campaign trail. In the interim — and leading up to his official candidacy announcement in New Orleans Dec. 28 — Edwards has continued to tour the nation honing his message on a theme he calls the great issue of our time: combating poverty.

Edwards’ official occupation as he entered the presidential derby was head of a recently established center on poverty issues at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, where he attended law school. He hopes that the issue will earn him significant support within the party’s traditional base of liberal activists, and more general support among voters in a nation where, statistics show, the gap between the wealthiest and least affluent Americans is growing.

His efforts may be bearing fruit, as his anti-poverty theme is drawing attention from segments of an important Democratic political constituency: organized labor.

Edwards threw his weight behind efforts to increase minimum wage levels in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. In April, he marched a picket line with Teamsters Union President James Hoffa and service workers at the University of Miami.

Last year, Edwards spoke at the national conventions for three major unions: the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Coalition and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It was at the latter that Edwards proclaimed the labor movement “the greatest anti-poverty program in the United States.”

“I believe in a Democratic Party of big ideas . . . a Democratic Party that’s not afraid of saying the word ‘union,’” he told more than 7,000 attendees at the Teamsters’ June convention in Las Vegas, according to release from the union.

The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity “helped spark a nationwide renewal of interest” in poverty and class issues, Edwards said in his resignation letter dated Dec. 28, the same day he announced his candidacy. A book co-written by Edwards, titled “Ending Poverty in America,” is scheduled to come out in April, about the time that the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination will be picking up steam.

His singular approach to the issue appears to be giving Edwards entree to possible union endorsements, from which he was excluded in 2004. Although Edwards also emphasizing the need to reduce poverty that year, he was viewed by many labor leaders as too inexperienced after just a single term in the Senate; some also looked askance at his profile as the “Southern alternative” to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry — who won the nomination and picked Edwards as his running mate — and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Edwards’ blue-collar roots are well established. His background as the son of a millworker and first member of his family to go to college won him credentials among rank-and-file union members, his campaign argued.

While most candidates courting unions focus on specific sectoral concerns, Edwards has taken a new approach, making economic populism and the value of unions part of his general message to all audiences, Kusnet said.

And another difference, Kusnet said, was Edwards’ experience on the picket line. “Other than Jesse Jackson [the longtime African-American activist], I don’t think there anybody who’s run for president who’s made themselves that visible in day-to-day union work,” he said.

But one change is likely to help Edwards, according to Kusnet — the insertion of Nevada into the early round of Democratic presidential nominating events. Edwards has made his strongest ties among SEIU and UNITE HERE, two unions with strong organizations in Nevada, a state where the hospitality and service industries are driving economic forces.

“They’re not just strong in the sense of being long-established, stable institutions, they’re dynamic organizing unions there. And that tends to be the kind of situation where people are more likely to vote as union members,” Kusnet said.

Official sanction from union leaders, however, will not be the most important issue to the campaign, Palmieri said. “Whether we get endorsements or not, we think that union household voters will be a big part of Edwards’ supporters,” she said.

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