Dean, Gephardt vie for Iowa labor votes

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(Host) All of the Democratic presidential candidates are actively seeking the support of labor unions in Iowa because the unions play a pivotal role in determining the winner of that state’s caucuses. VPR’s Bob Kinzel traveled to Iowa last weekend to find out what issues are on the minds of union members and how the presidential candidates are shaping their campaigns to win the union vote.

(Kinzel) Most of the candidates have come to Des Moines to attend the annual meeting of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union has a lot of political clout because it has 13,500 members in Iowa. That’s important because roughly 80,000 people are expected to participate in next January’s caucuses in Iowa and virtually all of the union members have pledged to be part of that process.

Iowa, like many states, is suffering through a budget crisis because of declining revenues. One result of this fiscal situation is that many government and private sector employees have been forced to pay considerably higher premiums for their health care policies. Carter Woodruff is the chief union steward at the Des Moines Water Works Department:

(Woodruff) “It’s a crisis. There’s no reason why a family should not be able to provide insurance for their kids and themselves, or at least the government should be able to provide that. It’s an absolute travesty that we have people who cannot get adequate medical care.”

(Kinzel) Tom Anthony is a union representative for the Iowa Department of Corrections. He’s very concerned about the skyrocketing cost of health care:

(Anthony) “Health care jumps out as number one. There’s just a crisis of care. We’ve got the growing rolls of what I would call the needy people. It’s not so much poor – we’ve got good poor programs for poor folks. But the folks that are just the working poor really, and I really think about small town America and small town Main Street. How little business is going to even begin to cover themselves with their employees.”

(Kinzel) The slumping economy in Iowa is also forcing the state to lay off employees through a consolidation of various departments. Judith Lowe works for the Department of Human Services:

(Lowe) “People that get laid off are not finding jobs as soon. We used to have virtually zero unemployment – you could always find a job pretty much. That’s not true any more. People that are laid off are not finding other jobs.”

(Kinzel) While many of the candidates arrive at the Polk County Convention Center with little fanfare, Congressman Richard Gephardt, from the neighboring state of Missouri, gets a very different reception. (Sound of Gephardt entering the lobby, talking with excited supporters.) Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in the 1988 presidential campaign, slowly moves through the crowd, stopping constantly to have his picture taken with different union groups. It’s clear that Gephardt has very strong labor support in Iowa and he tells the crowd that he’s confident that his plan for health care will provide coverage for all Americans and will revitalize the national economy.

Howard Dean is also greeted by an enthusiastic group of supporters. (Sound of Dean greeting supporters.) The former governor stops briefly to meet with union members before dashing off to prepare for the candidates’ forum, which is scheduled to take place in about an hour.

There’s an atmosphere of patriotism, as the 1,500 union members from all regions make their way into the convention hall. Delivering the convention’s opening statement, the international president of the union, Gerald McEntee, makes it very clear to the delegates that the union is going to endorse one of the Democratic candidates in 2004. The convention is viewed as a critical part of the evaluation process.

McEntee set the tone for the four-hour event by strongly criticizing the economic policies of President George Bush. McEntee noted that the collective budget deficit of all 50 states closely matches the amount of money that the Bush administration is spending to rebuild Iraq:

(McEntee) “While the president is trying to rebuild Iraq – whether it’s bridges or tunnels or give them the money, providing universal health care in Iraq – we say to the president and all the members of that party that they are neglecting the basic needs here in Iowa and across the country, in every state and every city.”

(Kinzel) Dean tells the delegates that the only way a democrat can beat President Bush next year is by offering clear alternatives to the administration on economic issues, health care and the environment:

(Dean) “This president has passed the largest tax cut in American history. He’s given $1.7 trillion to his corporate friends like Ken Lay, and added $10,000 worth of debt to every child in America. We can do better than that. This president has ruled us by making us afraid of each other and making us afraid of others. I want an America where we are going to rule by hope again. We’re going to have a tough country but a country where we acknowledge our responsibility for each other. We’re going to build an America again, no longer divided by fear and tax cuts for people who don’t need them.”

(Kinzel) Gephardt told the audience that he views health care and the economy as the two most important issues facing the country:

(Gephardt) “This president’s economic policy is failing. It has failed. It’s made a mess of this economy and there’s going to be a referendum on his leadership in November of 2004. We’re going to bring economic plans that will move this economy back up. Health care for everybody is the best way to stimulate this economy. To do it, we’ve got to get rid of the Bush tax cuts and that’s what I’ll do.”

(Kinzel) While Gephardt and Dean are the front runners for the union vote in Iowa, political observers believe Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich could draw votes away from the leaders. Kucinich, who describes himself as an FDR Democrat, electrifies the convention and brings the delegates to their feet for a standing ovation:

(Kucinich) “Tell Mr. Bush: Where are those weapons of mass destruction? I’ve seen those weapons and I’ll tell you where they are. Joblessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Hopelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Let’s bring back hope in America. Let’s bring back jobs in America. Let’s bring back workers’ rights in America. Thank you!”

(Kinzel) When the convention concludes, several candidates, including Gephardt and Dean, mingle with delegates and conduct press interviews. In an interview with Vermont Public Radio, Gephardt says he’s focusing on health care for very personal reasons:

(Gephardt) “My son was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was two [years old]. We had good insurance, we got experimental therapies. He survived, he’s alive today. I met a lot of parents who didn’t have health insurance for their kids who had cancer. This is a moral question. It is basically wrong for us to – in the richest country in the world – to have 41 million people who do not have access to health insurance. And I am bound and determined that we are going to solve this problem.”

(Kinzel) Gephardt has released the most ambitious and expensive health care plan of all the candidates. Under his proposal, all employers would be required to offer health coverage to their employees; the federal government would reimburse the companies for 60% of their costs. The reimbursement plan would also apply to all local and state governments. The price tag for the plan is several hundred billion dollars.

Dean, who has proposed a more modest plan, says the Gephardt proposal will bankrupt the country:

(Dean) “His is very, very expensive. It’s almost three times as expensive as ours and the reason is, it gives huge tax credits to corporations. We chose not to do that. We chose to focus on those people who didn’t have insurance and let the employer based system continue to take care of those people who did have insurance, But we just can’t have a plan that’s more expensive than the Bush tax cuts. The Bush tax cuts have harmed the economy enough and I’d like to balance the budget.”

(Kinzel) On this trip to Iowa Dean has emphasized his positions on the economy and health care to win the union vote. In future visits he plans to outline his policies on energy and the environment to help broaden his base of support.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel.

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