Democrats to seize wage issue in '06

Party looks to boost midterm voter turnout with initiatives to increase minimum pay

December 27, 2005|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- New Year's Day will bring the ninth straight year in which the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $5.15 an hour, marking the second-longest period that the nation has had a stagnant minimum wage since the standard was established in 1938.

Against that backdrop, Democrats are preparing ballot initiatives in states across the country to boost turnout of Democratic-leaning voters in 2006. Labor, religious and community groups have launched efforts to place minimum-wage initiatives on ballots in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas and Montana next fall.

Democrats say the minimum wage could be for them what the gay-marriage initiatives were in key states for Republicans last year - an easily understood issue that galvanizes their supporters to show up on Election Day.

"It's a fairness issue, and everybody gets the concept of fairness," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and longtime proponent of a higher minimum wage. "It's a moral issue. It's a value."

Of the seven states that appear most likely to have a minimum-wage increase on the ballot, five were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points in last year's presidential election, and all but Michigan supported President Bush. Republican senators in three of the states - Ohio, Arizona and Montana - are high on Democrats' target lists as the party seeks to pick up seats in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.

Congressional Republicans' efforts to block an increase to the federal minimum wage allow Democrats to take a popular stand that contrasts the priorities of the two parties, said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democrats' 2004 nominee for vice president.

"It's a powerful political issue because it's the right thing to do," said Edwards, who visited Arizona, Michigan and Ohio this year to rally supporters for minimum-wage initiatives and plans to travel more extensively next year in key states. "It's something that we should not be shying away from, and something we should be pushing."

Edwards, who made poverty a central theme of his presidential campaign, is working closely with local groups and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nationwide network of community groups.

In addition, Democratic-leaning religious groups are working with local churches to build support for minimum-wage initiatives. The Let Justice Roll campaign is asking leaders of churches, synagogues and mosques to talk to their members about the importance of the minimum wage in a nationwide push timed for the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 16.

"We bring it straight to the voters, state by state, and all the polls indicate people want people to be paid reasonable wages for their work," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania

"I don't think it can hurt [Democrats] next year if on five or six or seven states there's a ballot initiative that can lift the minimum wage," Edgar said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm when you talk about minimum wage."

Republicans say they're not concerned by the efforts. Voters approach ballot measures and candidates for office differently, and the president and the Republican Congress have a strong record of job and economic growth, said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Many Republicans support modest increases in the minimum wage when tied to economic changes such as cuts in required overtime pay.

"America's economy is best served by reasonable increases in the minimum wage so that we don't hurt small businesses from growing and creating future employment opportunities," Diaz said. "Nationwide, voters will continue to reject Democrat support for higher taxes and lawsuits that impair our nation's economic progress."

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington, said the minimum wage represents an area where Democrats can put forward an accessible proposal that Republicans are uncomfortable opposing. That makes it attractive as Democrats seek to fill out an election-year agenda for a campaign they hope will turn on national issues.

"I can see it as a Democratic-labor effort to make sure that their voters turn out," Rothenberg said. "The minimum wage hasn't been a big issue in a while, but it's always an issue that if Democrats are on the offensive, Republicans are going to be in a tough spot."

Democrats point out that under Republican congressional control of Washington, the federal minimum wage hasn't budged since September 1997. Inflation has caused the minimum wage's buying power to erode to its second-lowest level since 1955, according to a study released this month by the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

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