Wasted labor

The Democrats told AFL-CIO activists in Florida to take affidavits and act "nice," while the GOP mobilized its troops and got tough -- and won the political battle.

By Amy Bach

Published December 7, 2000 11:52PM (EST)

The Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board may deny it was intimidated, but one fact is indisputable: The board shut down its manual recount after raucous Republican rallies outside its meetings, and the decision cost Vice President Al Gore hundreds of votes in his quest to wipe out Gov. George W. Bush's lead. It looked to America like the Republicans were the only ones who had bothered to organize their troops to protest the disputed Florida vote.

In fact, the Democrats had squads of out-of-state AFL-CIO organizers deployed on the front lines in South Florida. But in the bitter aftermath of the election, the Democratic National Committee chose to use them as affidavit takers and peaceful recount observers rather than rabble-rousers. And now -- on the day of the largest Democratic protest yet in Florida, as thousands gathered in Tallahassee with Jesse Jackson -- some labor leaders, and some Democrats, are wishing they'd been allowed to make more noise early in the game.

Within days after the Nov. 7 election, labor organizers were in attack mode, preparing a grass-roots offensive of demonstrations and mano-a-mano wrangling with Republicans. But according to two national labor organizers, top DNC officials who got their orders from Gore campaign manager William M. Daley shut down labor's organizing efforts for fear that raucous protests would make Gore look like he was destabilizing the republic. Though the DNC had agreed that these national labor leaders should travel to Florida in the days after the election, DNC officials told them to behave as "orderly, polite and genteel Democrats," according to one top labor organizer.

So instead of using the commandos of the labor movement for their expertise in rallying people power, the DNC deployed them as affidavit takers, and on Nov. 20, at the start of the recount in Miami-Dade County, to sit as recount observers. "This was a recount and not a political campaign," said Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Gore campaign, confirming that labor was one of several activist and legal groups sent to act as observers and take affidavits.

According to one top labor organizer, at one evening debriefing when the Miami recount began, "a Democratic Party official actually boasted that we were aiming to win the Miami-Dade Canvassing Board over by being nice and that we were coming close to winning over [Republican canvassing board member Judge Myriam Lehr] by being nice. They actually used the word 'nice.'"

In the end, the Republicans put into force rowdy protesters and disobliging counters who accused Democrats of stealing ballots. They had a sit-in outside the office of the supervisor of elections when the board tried to move the counting to a room out of public view. Meanwhile, Democrats had little public protesting and discouraged bickering with local officials while their army of 200 to 300 lawyers, staff and party loyalists collected voter affidavits in an effort to win the battle in the courts.

The Miami-Dade board, of course, shut down its manual recount Nov. 22, in the face of the raucous Republican protests. On Friday, almost a month after the disputed presidential election, hundreds of labor and community activists packed into the mall in front of the Miami-Dade County Elections Office to let the world know that they were ready to get serious. "If you're willing to fight for our democracy shout, 'Stand up for justice!'" yelled Monica Russo, director of Unite for Dignity for Florida Healthcare Workers, a project of the Service Employees International Union. Echoing her call, the crowd of mostly black Floridians chanted louder and louder in English and in Haitian Creole with lots of "No more Bushes!!" and "Count our votes!!"

But when the chanting died down, it was easy to hear something else in the talk among the demonstrators: a sense of deflation that the fight came too late. The angry voices that were harnessed Friday should have been galvanized three weeks ago, say national labor leaders. "If there had been 5,000 people there when the canvassing board was making its decision you would have had a different result," says this top labor organizer.

Likewise, some activist Democrats complain, the party and its allies did an extraordinary job organizing a get-out-the-vote drive, especially among African-Americans, but failed to capitalize on black voters' anger about being disenfranchised by Florida ballot problems in the days after the election. African-Americans made up 10 percent of the Florida electorate in 1998 and 15 percent in 2000, but the party failed to mobilize them early to demand manual recounts, which might have meant hundreds or even thousands more black votes counted in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Gore didn't zero in on the way minorities were disproportionately hurt by the truncated manual recount until Nov. 27, three weeks after the election.

And those activists who did complain that minorities were being disenfranchised by the failure to pursue manual recounts did a poor job of getting their point across with stories of real voters who'd been hurt by Florida's flawed election process. The best account of the problem came not from Democrats or activists but from two New York Times articles that did the DNC's work for it -- three weeks after the disputed election. (See Josh Barbanel and Ford Fessenden's "Racial Pattern in Demographics of Error-Prone Ballots" and Mireya Navarro and Somini Sengupta's "Arriving at Florida Voting Places, Some Blacks Found Frustration.")

The Monday after the Miami-Dade recount was halted, I was madly searching for Miami's disenfranchised. An employee at the Miami branch of People for the American Way, which spearheaded the minority vote drive and had an Election Day hotline, told me that she had a binder filled with voters' complaints but could not release any names until she cleared it with People's office in Washington.

A P.R. flack and an attorney from D.C. then called to say that they could fax me a transcript from a well-publicized hearing held weeks before and some long-ago released complaints. The lawyer explained that they had to be tight-lipped because they were preparing for litigation. They were saving the good stuff for the courts.

When I asked the Advancement Project, one of the leaders of the voting rights litigation, for names, the press person at first provided me with the name of a woman whose story had been in the Navarro-Sengupta New York Times story -- nothing I couldn't get from buying the Times. To his credit, he then worked hard to find other people for me to talk with. But it took a herculean effort to find the stuff that DNC allies should have been throwing at me all along.

If at the end of a long fight in the courts it turns out that Gore is still a few hundred votes short of victory, his advisors might think again about the Democrats' strategy in Miami-Dade. In their wake they leave people like Skip Williams, 50, a black Vietnam veteran who stood on the fringe of last Friday's protest for hours with an American flag wrapped around his head and a "I've Been Bushwhacked" sign in his hands. He is haunted by the fact that his vote may not count. "I've been dreaming about it. Waking up and thinking, 'Did I push the chad all the way through?'"

Al Gore may wind up dreaming about it too, throughout a Bush presidency.

Amy Bach

Amy Bach is a lawyer and journalist.


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