Just how big is news that Howie Dean has locked up the endorsement not only of the 1.6-million-member Service Employees International Union led by Andrew Stern, but apparently also of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees led by Gerald McEntee?
"Kerry? A goner. Edwards? A goner. Gephardt? I don't know," says an AFL-CIO lobbyist in Washington. "That Dean has managed to get both unions locked up is remarkable given that four months ago, one of them seemed to be in Gephardt's pocket and the other was in Kerry's."
Perhaps what is even more remarkable is that Dean has managed to bridge the bitter divide between McEntee and Stern, both of whom have spent the past six months warily circling each other trying to outplay the other on the Democratic campaign trail.
McEntee liked other candidates. He was a huge early booster of Sen. John Kerry. Then he was in love with his pal Bill Clinton's stalking horse, Wesley Clark. In the end, his membership's love affair with Dean won out. And it appears that McEntee's request to Stern to delay the formal announcement of the Dean endorsement so that the two unions could do it together next Wednesday is a power play to shake up the Democratic Party.
"The elections on Tuesday, losing in Mississippi and in Kentucky, neither of which were big on the union agenda, were still big for the national party," says the AFL-CIO lobbyist. "Both Stern and McEntee want a larger voice in the party, more influence. Crowning their candidate now puts them in a very influential position inside the party because the party leader, Terry McAuliffe, is looking weaker as the days go by."
Never mind the Democratic Party, which by now has already been bought by organized labor and the $350 million it will use to help Democrats next year. Stern and McEntee's joint endorsement is also big inside the big-tent AFL-CIO. Even union folks say that while Dean's big union backing perhaps puts him over the top, Gephardt remains in the picture.
"Dean has two big fish, but Gephardt has 18 fish already in the basket. This thing isn't over yet," says the AFL-CIO lobbyist, who notes that it isn't the size of the unions a candidate has endorsement, but the sheer number of AFL affiliate endorsements. Gephardt still trumps all of his competitors on that front, which is why the former party leader in the House remains more competitive than others right now.
Reading the press reports about Dean's labor coup, it's clear that pundits are writing off some of the candidates -- Kerry and Edwards to be most precise. Under normal circumstances that would be surprising, given the kooky election cycles we've been seeing. But the union hold on the Democratic Party is now so strong and influential, it's difficult to see any candidate without strong labor backing successfully winning the nomination.
In the meantime, rumors were swirling in Washington late Thursday that Stern and McEntee were trying to get DNC chairman McAuliffe to somehow play a role in the endorsement proceedings, perhaps in a bid to further co-opt the party to their whims.
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