With endorsement of union, Dean moves to mainstream

Service workers' support expected to broaden base

November 06, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Howard Dean may have started his presidential campaign as an angry insurgent, an outsider from tiny Vermont with few resources beyond an anti-war message and a willingness to take on the Democratic establishment.

But today he all but completes his shift from boutique candidate of the Internet and Volvo crowd to a more traditional Democrat - and a front-runner - with considerable backing in dollars, organization and core constituencies.

In an achievement that would give his candidacy a boost, the former governor is expected to gain the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, which, at 1.6 million strong, is the largest, fastest-growing and most ethnically diverse union in the AFL-CIO.

What's more, Dean, who has raised $25.2 million, more than any of his Democratic rivals, is considering rejecting federal matching funds to avoid limits on his spending during the primary season. A cash-flush President Bush has made such a move.

Dean's perceived front-runner status has also touched off increasingly heated attacks from his rivals. He is trying to quiet an uproar over his recent comment that the Democratic Party should broaden its appeal by reaching out to Southerners "with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

At a debate of the Democratic candidates Tuesday night, Dean was accused of offending both blacks and whites with his reference to the Confederate flag, which is viewed by many as a racist symbol. Dean refused to apologize for the remark.

Yesterday, at a campaign speech in New York, Dean sounded a more contrite note, calling his comment about the flag "clumsy" and saying, "I regret the pain that I may have caused, either to African-American or Southern white voters."

Though his words seemed to stop short of an apology, the Associated Press reported that it received a phone call later from Dean, who said he had intended his remarks at the New York event to be an apology.

"That was an apology - you heard it from me," he told the wire service.

The bulk of his speech, at Cooper Union college, was devoted to campaign finance reform and Dean's unusual step to ask his supporters to decide whether he should become the first-ever Democratic presidential candidate to abandon the public campaign finance system. A candidate who accepts federal money to match a portion of private donations can spend no more than $45 million during the primary season.

Dean said his campaign would poll 600,000 supporters this week, largely through e-mail. He is asking them to decide whether he, like Bush, who hopes to raise as much as a record $200 million, should forgo public money and thus be free to spend as much money as he can raise.

Dean, who is to announce his decision Saturday, seemed to be encouraging a vote for him to opt out of the system, a move that could prompt record spending if other Democrats, such as Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, follow suit.

Over the past year, Dean has pledged to adhere to spending limits. But yesterday, he said, "Unfortunately, despite the law's best intent, it will hinder our reform efforts while rewarding the Bush campaign's attempts to further increase the power of special interests."

Dean's success at raising money and building an efficient grass-roots organization, combined with his focus on health care and his outspoken, at times pugnacious, demeanor, has made him appealing to the service employees union. The union is to announce today, after a meeting of its 62-member board, whether to endorse Dean or make no endorsement.

"Clearly, over the last couple of months, it's become clear that, for our members, there's a lot of passion for Dean," said Sara Howard, a union spokeswoman. "And it's unmatched by the other candidates."

The service union's endorsement would effectively deny one of Dean's rivals, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a union champion for more than two decades in Congress, the consensus blessing of organized labor.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has abandoned his effort to deliver his umbrella labor organization to Gephardt, who has the backing of 20 international unions. The AFL-CIO leadership has said it would endorse only a candidate who won the support of two-thirds of its members.

The service union's stamp of approval would also broaden Dean's support, until now composed largely of educated, well-to-do voters, to include those like the janitors, hospital workers, security officers and other blue- and white-collar employees of the service workers union, 37 percent of whom are minorities.

"It would take Dean well beyond what's been called the `Starbucks ghetto' of affluent voters," says David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and former Clinton speechwriter and union official.

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