`Keeping their powder dry'

Unions delay presidential endorsements amid fears of spending too soon or backing the wrong candidate

December 26, 2007|By John Chase | John Chase,Chicago Tribune

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Retired dairy worker and Teamsters official Ed Sparks remembers the days here in Iowa when a race for president meant more than just campaign workers knocking on his door looking for support.

Representatives from his national union and others often could be seen trudging up and down the snowy sidewalks of small towns and cities in an all-out effort to get out the vote.

But this year, with only a few days to go until the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, Sparks has noticed that that presence has precipitously declined.

"It's not as strong as it's been," said the 75-year-old retiree at a recent political rally. "I wish it was stronger."

Indeed, many unions' armies have thinned here this presidential season - and for myriad reasons.

Some have concerns about spending too much during the primary and having less money available for the general election. Others are waiting to see what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire before backing a particular candidate.

John Campbell, Iowa's political director for the United Steelworkers, which is backing former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said labor has become cautious about early endorsements because so many backed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in 2004 when he placed fourth in Iowa.

"After 2004, some of the other unions got gun-shy and just don't want to endorse this time around," Campbell said. "Not yet, anyway."

Campbell said he thinks some unions don't want to endorse a candidate now only to have to switch should the candidate fall short in Iowa or New Hampshire, as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees did when it dropped its endorsement of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 in favor of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

"Unions have always put up a lot of money, and they will this time," he said. "But some are looking at it that it is the White House that is the prize, not the nomination. So, they're keeping their powder dry for the end game and not expending their energies too soon."

Among the major unions so far sitting out of the endorsement race is the national Service Employees International Union, which has allowed local chapters to back candidates.

Neither the Teamsters nor the Ironworkers union has endorsed candidates, as they did four years ago.

Still, unions aren't silent in this campaign.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has received endorsements from major labor groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and AFSCME.

While rival Sen. Barack Obama hasn't received much support from national unions, he has gotten the backing of some locals, including Illinois AFSCME, which endorsed the Illinois Democrat this month despite the national organization's backing of Clinton.

Edwards, who has been backed by several national unions, has received support from locals as well, including the SEIU in Iowa. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut has received the backing of the firefighters unions, while Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico have received the backing of local labor unions.

Roberta Till-Retz, a retired labor educator at the University of Iowa and now the communications director for the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, said she thinks there is less national union involvement this time because the unions are satisfied with the quality of the Democratic field.

"People are happy with the candidates," she said. "The general sense is that we have a great crew of candidates and we want to wait for the general election before spending all our money."

John Chase writes for the Chicago Tribune.

In 2004, a bitter lesson

Many labor unions that year backed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who finished fourth in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. This year, many unions are waiting to endorse a candidate for president.

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