Friday, February 15, 2008

Service Employees Union Endorses Obama, Which Could Tip Scales in Key States

UPDATE, FEB. 20: And now the Teamsters hop on board the Obama Express as well, which should be very helpful to Obama in Clinton's must-win industrial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

ORIGINAL POST: One thing I've learned to do as a political blogger who cares about getting his facts straight is to ask politicians and organizations to put VichyDems on their media contact lists, which they're increasingly willing to do. Getting the same press releases and participating in the same press conferences as ABC and Fox News' correspondents allows me to get the real facts, before the news outlets put their "spin" on them. [Update: this story has made the news wires now; here are the stories from the Associated Press, Washington Post (also via Reuters here and here, and via AP here), CNN, USA Today, and the Austin (TX) Statesman.]

So I just got off a press conference conference call with the Service Employees International Union's Executive Board, which announced that it "overwhelmingly voted to endorse Barack Obama" over Hillary Clinton in the Presidential primary. While saying they have "tremendous respect for Hillary Clinton," speakers explained that their union has worked with Obama for 25 years -- the community organizing work he did in Chicago before entering politics was in the same communities the union works with -- and that "there hasn't been a [union-related] fight in Illinois that Barack Obama hasn't helped us on."

More significantly, though, everyone who spoke said clearly that their decision was based primarily on two things. One, which was mentioned in passing but seemed significant, was the candidates' differences on the Iraq war, since many union members have children serving in the armed forces, want them home, and apparently trust Obama to do that more than they do Hillary. The other, and the one the various speakers kept emphasizing, was the union's desire for "change" and their growing "excitement" about Obama. One member of the Executive Board said:

“This is a moment of change.... we think this is a really determining issue, not just for those of us who are working today, but for our children and grandchildren... We have tremendous respect for Hillary Clinton” but "it’s time for something new." In response to a question from Fox News about the candidates' policy positions on labor issues, a speaker responded that the decision "isn’t about specific positions taken alone, but about the right person at the right time... exciting a group of our members who feel very excited about being enfranchised and being involved.” He mentioned a "new generation" and said that “Barack Obama’s the one to take us there."

The SEIU Board says it made this decision now for several reasons. One is that internal polling showed that at least 60% of its members were ready to make this endorsement, which is required before the union will endorse. Another is Edwards' withdrawal; several state organizations that had endorsed Edwards moved to Obama.

Third, and most significantly: the union is making this decision now, on a national level, precisely because they're in a position to help tip the scales one way or another, and they want to exercise that power while they have it. (More about that new strategy below.) SEIU has 150,000 members in the remaining primary states; is the largest union in Oregon and, one speaker thought, in the key state of Pennsylvania; and believes it's particularly well-positioned to have an impact on "the next couple states" primaries -- ones that Clinton desperately needs to win if she wants to stop Obama's momentum. In other words, the union wants to be a player, not just in the general election, but in the primary.

How much impact can this endorsement, and the actual work the union will do on Obama's behalf, have on the outcome of the primary?

- SEIU is the fastest growing union in America, and currently has 1.9 million members.

- SEIU has 30,000 voters in Ohio, where Clinton desperately needs a win.

- In Texas -- another "must win" state for Clinton -- SEIU has been growing quickly, and actively organizing new locals, in Texas -- which means it both has lots of grassroots organizers on the ground who can add "help Obama" to their to-do list, and it has significant inroads with the Latino community there, which Clinton has been counting on to put her over the top there.

- In all states, but especially Texas and Ohio, the union can mount strong "get out the vote" (GOTV) efforts.

A few final notes that I find interesting:

- The SEIU organization in New York, Hillary Clinton's home state, did not oppose the decision to endorse Obama. Instead, they abstained from the vote, not wanting to alienate their own senator but not supporting her either. If Clinton can't get the wholehearted backing of one of the largest unions in her own home state, she may be in trouble with the labor vote overall -- which is important not only to her prospects in the primary, but also to her ability to energize the union vote in a general election.

- The decision to endorse a candidate relatively early in a primary is part of a new strategy for the SEIU -- a strategy that could play a significant role in politics at all levels in the future. Board members bragged about their role in helping progressive newcomer Donna Edwards defeat the incumbent Democrat, Albert Wynn -- who has served 8 terms in Maryland's Fourth District but took the wrong position on the Iraq war and other progressive issues. (In the strongly Democratic district, Edwards is almost certain to be elected against any Republican challenger, so the primary race effectively determined who that district's next Congressperson will be.)

The Edwards-Wynn race was the first time the SEIU actively helped a challenger defeat a "Vichy" Democratic incumbent, and represents a significant change from politics-as-usual. A SEIU Board member described their support for Edwards as "holding candidates responsible" for voting illiberally and promised that there "will be more of that in the future," ranging from the union "putting the spotlight on particular votes" to recruiting candidates to actively run against incumbents who, despite being Democrats, are seen as working against union members' interests. Now the union is bringing the same approach to the big leagues, throwing its weight behind its preferred candidate at a critical point in the primary. If it succeeds in tipping the scales, it will emerge as a kingmaker -- and primary races at all levels will become much more significant than they are now. Which is good news for those of us who want to reform the primary system, and unseat entrenched "blue dogs, Vichys, DINOs", etc.

Upsetting the incumbent in a primary is both rare and essential to unseating Vichys -- it's long been a theme on this blog; as the Washington Post put it, "The defeat of an incumbent in a primary is a rarity, but two in one state is almost unheard of. In Maryland, no congressional incumbent had lost a party primary since 1992; it had been 28 years since two fell on one day... Lawmakers on Capitol Hill took it as a sign that the election season could be bad for incumbents ....."

- The union's influence with Latinos applies outside Texas, too. The Change to Win Federation, the union umbrella organization which spun off from the AFL/CIO in 2005 and which SEIU belongs to, has been working to engage in politics not just by donating money to candidates, but through grassroots activism and by building relationships with local communities, not just union members. (Mirroring their fundraising and campaign strategies, Clinton has more AFL/CIO union support; Obama has more CTW unions' support.) One SEIU Board member emphasized that SEIU has built particularly strong relationships "with the Latino community.” In other words, they may help tilt the Latino vote -- which already is starting to be more evenly balanced between Clinton and Obama than it was in the early primaries -- Obama's way.

Finally, a suggestion for the SEIU: as part of its strategy, it's in perfect position to lobby the Democratic superdelegates and pressure them to vote consistently with their constituents, or else face the same kind of challenge that lost Wynn his job, and also to have its Michigan and Florida members pressure party leaders to hold new primaries rather than try to seat delegations that don't represent all those states' Democrats and that are unfairly tipped toward Hillary Clinton.

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