Unions helped Dick Gephardt win the Iowa Democratic caucus in 1988, but political supporters of the veteran lawmaker are uneasy about his chances in next year's presidential contest.
Sixteen years ago, Gephardt won the caucus by telling Iowans he was a regular guy who understood that farmers and workers were hurting. He won the backing of the state's behemoth United Auto Workers union by attacking the influence of overseas automakers.
Now that Gephardt has formally entered the 2004 race and is making his first swing through crucial Iowa, the Missouri congressman and former House Democratic leader is trying to build a coalition of labor interests more aligned with the concerns of today's workers while keeping longtime supporters happy.
"This a different campaign for a different office — not Congress — and we are going to aggressively go and seek their support," a senior Gephardt adviser said of outreach to unions.
That is in part because the character and demographics of labor unions in Iowa have changed since 1988, even as unions continue to exercise disproportionate influence in the party's nominating contests.
"The Quad Cities … area used to be called the farm-implement capital of the world because every [town] had jobs in manufacturing. Now, it's not," said Ken Golden, a spokesman for John Deere, the farm and construction equipment company.
By contrast, some of the public employees unions, like the state branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, have almost doubled in size. And many service unions, like groups representing teachers, remain somewhat insulated from short-term economic downturns.
Because government, schools and hospitals can't be exported to other countries, their unions aren't terribly worried about trade, which was Gephardt's signature issue in 1988 and about which he talked at length when he announced his presidential candidacy.
"The blue-collar unions, which have faced all those issues that Gephardt appeals to, have declined," said Hugh Winebrenner, a historian of Iowa politics.
Today, health-care unions, constellations of clerical employees, teachers and government workers form a growing proportion of the union electorate. And at least one other top-tier candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, regularly touts his near-perfect alliance with those group's interests. While most union leaders remained opposed to NAFTA, they acknowledge that their priorities have changed for the moment.
The Still Mighty UAW
The UAW remains mighty in Iowa politics. It is the largest industrial union in the Midwest and its retired employees are fiercely loyal to its political prerogatives.
But the UAW, angering many of its old hands, professes to remain neutral because other candidates in the race, notably Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, have accumulated as many gold medals as Gephardt.
"There is a feeling that's not in particular related to Gephardt, that candidates often take labor's vote for granted," said Dan Holub, director of the labor program at the University of Iowa. "If you hold back in terms of your endorsement, it sends a message that you need to listen to us."
Chuck Gifford, a Gephardt supporter who ran UAW's ground operation in 1988, said he is frustrated that current labor leaders want to audition the new candidates at the expense of building momentum for a reliable a support.
"Why would we want to credential someone else, when we already got someone we like?" asked Gifford, who is close to the candidate. "Gephardt's been our friend. He's not a new friend."
Though it's hard to tell precisely, exit polls and anecdotal evidence showed that many of Gephardt's 1988 caucus supporters were farmers, longtime labor activists, retirees, machinists, ironworkers, welders, and steel fabricators. Indeed, part of the reason why Gephardt lost in other parts of the country is because his message was uniquely tailored to states like Iowa and Michigan, while falling flat in New Hampshire, where the trade deficit was of little consequence and unemployment was virtually naught. He also ran out of money.
The New Gephardt
The new Gephardt, introduced with a flourish in his St. Louis hometown last week, will balance his past with his present and try not take anything or any group — especially unions — for granted.
Yet there is what one Iowa Democrat called the "staleness factor." It's not that Gephardt himself is old news; it's that many caucus goers will be new to the process. In 2000, according to calculations by political scientist Michael Levy, 46 percent of caucus-goers were new. Many Iowa political experts believe that figure will be matched, if not exceeded in 2004.
On Thursday, Gephardt talked plenty about trade, but he also promised to slash "the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy" and use the money to "finish the unfinished business of providing high-quality health coverage to everyone who works in America, saving billions, and stimulating one of the biggest sectors of our private economy. To me, this is a moral imperative."
Though Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, he received only 31 percent of the projected delegate pool. That's 31 percent of the 110,000-odd Democrats who turned out. Most Democrats who voted in 1988 chose other candidates.
The Labor Department estimates that about 173,000 Iowans belong to labor unions. Iowa Federation of Labor President Mark Smith said he expects more than 60,000 of them to attend the caucuses. Many of them will be new to the process.
The Gephardt of 2002 isn't as purely pro-labor as the Gephardt of 1988 either.
Populist Democrats hoped that Gephardt would lead the fight against permanent trade ties to China. He didn't, though he voted against the legislation. And in 1997, his advocacy of an expanded H-1B visa program for foreign technology workers gave him a temporary credential as a technocratic centrist but angered his labor allies.
A prominent state Democrat who was one of Gephardt's top field activists in 1988 said that activists who have no personal connection to the Missouri congressman politely acknowledge Gephardt's general fidelity to their issues but look elsewhere.
"He's not as fresh as we was in 1988. And the bulk of the Democratic folks are not real quick to grasp somebody who wasn't successful," the Democrat said. "We're not quick to vote for someone who failed once before."
Someone crisp like Kucinich, the anti-war Democrat from Ohio, might attract them, if only temporarily.
A top Iowa labor leader who has supported Gephardt in the past but who remains undecided today said Kucinich reminds many of Paul Wellstone, the populist Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash while running for re-election last year. "We believed in Paul Wellstone. You're not going to argue for someone you don't believe can win," the labor leader said.
Which may be the ultimate reason why labor leaders are unusually reticent, unusually early.
"Labor, more than any other Democratic interest group, is very pragmatic," said Jeff Smith, who was Bill Bradley's Iowa political director in 2000. "The union leadership in Washington is going to be split enough that there's not going to be any clear signal to the people in Iowa."