The Democrats officially have their front-runner. Howard Dean had already opened a sizable lead on the rest of the field before this week, but now that he’s been endorsed by the nation’s two most politically potent unions — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — he crossed two crucial hurdles.

First, by winning the backing of these two racially diverse mega-unions, Dean has expanded his base beyond the white middle-class ghetto that has incubated his campaign. Some months ago, a colleague who attended a Dean rally in San Antonio, Texas, mentioned to me that the crowd was almost entirely white — this in a city that is roughly 80 percent Latino, and where the Democratic Party must be more than 90 percent Latino. From now on, at absolute minimum, Dean is assured of a quorum of Latinos at any rally in a city that has unionized janitors, since the SEIU’s heavily immigrant janitorial locals are among the most politically disciplined and effective of any unions in the land. More seriously, both SEIU and AFSCME have a proven record of turning out black and Latino votes — and not just those of their members — for the candidates that they endorse.

Second, by winning the backing of AFSCME president Gerald McEntee in particular, Dean has been anointed as the candidate of the smart-money guys. While some union presidents bestow endorsements based on candidates’ records of support for union causes, McEntee has said repeatedly that his bias is to help out the likely winner, so long as that winner has acceptably Democratic positions. In 1992, McEntee had AFSCME endorse Bill Clinton while other unions either endorsed Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a labor-liberal warhorse, or stood idly by. As a consequence, McEntee had unparalleled access to Clinton for all the time he was in the White House, more access, even, than AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

By backing Dean, then, McEntee is clearly saying he thinks Dean will get the nomination. He is not clearly saying that he thinks Dean will beat George W. Bush, for the simple reason that politically sophisticated Dean supporters believe nothing more than that Dean, under the right set of circumstances, might just possibly have a chance to beat Bush.

SEIU’s endorsement, which had been in the works for some time, was less about picking winners. The 1.6 million member union is strongest in California, where it has over half-a-million members, and New York — two states where Dean’s forthrightly anti-war, anti-Bush stances have deep support among Democrats generally and SEIU members in particular. Though the SEIU represents more health-care workers than any other union, and though it announced that the candidates’ history and positions on health-care issues would loom large in its endorsement calculus, in the end it was Dean’s ability to excite millions of Democrats with his attacks on the administration that proved decisive. “The passion for Dean in our union is coming from the coasts, where we have the highest concentration of our members,” says one SEIU official. “How representative they are for the rest of the country — which speaks to the issue of Dean’s electability — is a real question.”

In fact, with the notable exception of one major Chicago local, SEIU locals from the Midwest were not leading the charge for Dean. “Folks are still worried how he’ll play in Ohio,” the SEIU official notes, referring to what will likely be the key swing state in November 2004. “But there wasn’t really support for any other candidate, and as [SEIU President] Andy [Stern] noted [in last week’s national council meeting], Dean has so far done a whole lot better than we were expecting he would.”

AFSCME’s road to endorsing Dean was somewhat more tortuous. In reality, it was McEntee’s road: At AFSCME, McEntee has a somewhat freer hand on endorsement issues than Stern does at SEIU. And McEntee started the political season high on John Kerry, a candidate who looked great on paper, but whose ponderous, convoluted performances and positions on the campaign trail have damaged his prospects, perhaps irreversibly. McEntee then turned his attention to Wesley Clark, who also looked good on paper, but whose own performances on the trail, while more compelling than Kerry’s, have been erratic. Neither McEntee nor Stern was much impressed with Clark’s entourage, which includes old Clinton retainers who weren’t the ones responsible for Clinton’s success at the polls, and a number of Al Gore’s erstwhile handlers who had opposed, disastrously, all of Gore’s populist impulses in the course of his campaign.

McEntee’s misgivings were only intensified when Clark announced he would not compete in the Iowa caucuses, even though AFSCME has a strong record of helping the candidates it endorses in Iowa, and even though, by several accounts, Clark had assured McEntee that he was in Iowa to stay.

Convinced that Dick Gephardt was yesterday’s news, McEntee was left looking at Dean or nobody, and McEntee, like nature, abhors a vacuum. As the nation’s largest public sector union, AFSCME was built for political action; to sit out the Democratic primary season would all but negate its raison d’être. As well, McEntee did not feel he could let Stern, with whom he’s developed a rivalry (both unions organize health-care workers), have the inside track with the man most likely to become the Democratic nominee.


The joint endorsement of the two unions strengthens Dean where he’s already strong, in America’s cosmopolitan centers. AFSCME is as concentrated in New York as the SEIU is in California. Neither union has much strength in the anti-union South, though AFSCME does have politically active locals throughout the Midwest. And those are the two regions where Dean could use their help — or anybody’s — the most.

As the primary season assumes clearer shape, the key question now is which candidate will emerge as the anti-Dean. (At least, that’s the key question unless Dean implodes, and to date, Dean has shown himself to be both error-prone and implosion-proof, a somewhat oxymoronic condition that may not be sustainable.) If Dick Gephardt manages to beat Dean in Iowa, that distinction may be his. If not, that mantle may pass to Wesley Clark should he emerge the victor in South Carolina, where he currently leads in the polls. John Kerry would have to defeat Dean in New Hampshire to get back into the race, an outcome that looks less and less likely.

Unless Dean blows everyone away early on, the contours of the contest would go something like this: Dean wins the New York and California primaries on March 2, though the real contest that day could come in Ohio. One week later, the scene shifts to primaries in Texas and Florida, where Clark, if he’s still around, could have a good shot at beating Dean. That would set up a climactic showdown in the March 16 Illinois primary, where the endorsement of Richard Daley the Younger could be key. Even in the age of MoveOn and MeetUp, it’s nice to have the Daley machine on your side.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly