Son of millworker, Edwards hones his appeal to little guy

February 24, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JOHN EDWARDS reminds America that he is the son of a millworker, and this is supposed to count for something. In the familiar political shorthand, he assures us he understands the human yearning for security, for a fair cut of the action. And then he is gone somewhere else, hoping that the shorthand sticks in our heads.

He came to Prince George's County the other day, and he gave the usual speech. It lasted 20 minutes. He said George W. Bush has presided over "two Americas," as though this is some kind of bulletin. He said the corporate bosses are doing great and everybody else is falling behind, as though nobody noticed such a thing until now.

On York Road in the heart of Towson, the young woman behind the McDonald's counter makes $5.50 an hour. This means something. The U.S. Labor Department says food preparation jobs will increase by 673,000 over the course of this decade. This is the largest projected growth of any occupation in the country, a nation flipping hamburgers on the way to the poorhouse.

At Prince George's Community College, Edwards faced a crowd that was mainly African-American. He tells an old story about his family struggling on millwork money, understood with painful intimacy by many blacks. Their wage levels are lower than whites', and their unemployment numbers are higher. They cheered Edwards like an old friend because work anxieties cross all lines.

As everybody has heard, more jobs have been lost on George W. Bush's watch than any president since Hoover and the Great Depression. But this is only part of the problem. A new book, Low-Wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace, details the glum numbers. Of the roughly 100 million Americans with full-time employment, more than half earn less than $35,000 annually. Only 15.7 percent make as much as $65,000.

While this happens, the Labor Department tells us, corporate CEOs now make 400 times the pay of their employees. And George W. Bush insists on giving tax cuts to the CEOs.

John Edwards' father was a millworker, but the mill jobs disappeared along with the farm worker and the switchboard operator and the guy pumping gasoline. Nobody got rich at such trades, but what's replacing them? The cashier at the Rosedale Rite Aid makes $6 an hour. The government expects 474,000 new cashier jobs this decade. The Hopkins Plaza security guard makes $8 an hour. The government expects we will add 391,000 of these jobs. Cashiers and security guards are among the occupations with the largest projected growth this decade.

In Prince George's County, Edwards was embraced by U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn. Wynn is the son of a schoolteacher and a man who worked on boilers and heating systems for the government. The Wynns came out of North Carolina. For their generation of blacks, Washington was the first hopeful stop on the northern migration.

"When Edwards talks about being the son of a millworker, that resonates with a lot of people," Wynn said yesterday. "It resonates with me. He's a wealthy trial lawyer now, but he's saying, `I came up hard, I come from working class.' When I talk to my constituents, they don't talk about national security. They talk about jobs, about government outsourcing, about coming out of college and there's no work."

It is, in part, the difference in primary messages between Edwards and John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner who is leading in the national polls -- and in Maryland endorsements. Kerry, understanding the modern need for reducing complex issues to emotional shorthand, has latched onto Vietnam as his political mantra. For George W. Bush, it is his image as a "war president," a man who has stood firm since that awful Sept. 11. For Edwards, it comes down to a father who worked in a mill.

Having done his 20 minutes in the D.C. suburbs, Edwards took off. His people have him scheduled tentatively for a visit to Baltimore on Saturday or Monday. This is just before the big March 2 Democratic primaries. Ten states are holding primaries that day, but Maryland is considered a pipsqueak alongside New York, California and Ohio, also voting that day.

This is why Edwards arrives everywhere in hectic installments, 20-minute shorthand speeches, which are then reduced to 90-second television stories composed of multiple 10-second sound bites. This is why he keeps reminding us that he is the son of a millworker.

The arithmetic out of the Labor Department is bloodless, but somewhere in the American memory bank is the recollection of millwork and what it meant for families trying to cope with a Great Depression and a great war that followed. It resonates in a time when millions of manufacturing jobs have simply disappeared and will not return.

It is the message Edwards brought to Prince George's County and may bring to Baltimore: He is the son of a millworker. It is verbal shorthand intended to humanize all those depressing Labor Department numbers. And you can fit it into a sound bite and hope it sticks in people's brains.

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