In Ohio, the war has already begun

Super Tuesday might not bring much drama in the Buckeye state, but labor and other groups are mobilized for a fierce fight to defeat President Bush in November.

Published March 2, 2004 1:16AM (EST)

One clue to the outcome of the November presidential election could be found last Thursday afternoon on the east side of downtown Cleveland, in the windowless cubicle of a modest blue and gray storefront just across from the Board of Elections building. There were eight union members sitting in front of computers and telephone auto-dialers, talking into their headsets as they urged fellow unionists to vote for John Kerry in Tuesday's primary election. But the significance of this operation was not so much its boost for Kerry as what it reveals about a much broader campaign -- extending beyond the labor movement -- to block President George W. Bush from winning a second term no matter who the Democratic candidate might be.

Though Kerry and Sen. John Edwards will fight it out in a dozen states in this week's Super Tuesday presidential primaries, there's little drama in the vote. Polls show Kerry leading his main challenger by 20 points or more in Ohio, California and New York. Far from being complacent, though, many here are already locked on to the fall campaign, certain that Ohio will be one of a handful of battleground states that could, in the end, determine the outcome of the race.

It's a state that Democratic and Republican presidential winners, with few exceptions, have long needed for victory. Bush defeated Gore here four years ago by only 3.5 percentage points, but many state political strategists blame that loss on Gore's decision to pull the plug on his campaign in Ohio for the last three weeks of the campaign. This year, many of them are more hopeful, partly because of Bush's vulnerabilities, especially on jobs and the economy, but also because of a combination of organization and passion among core Democratic voters. "Ohio is the Florida of 2004," said Gerald Austin, who has run many Ohio campaigns and Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential bid. "This state is up for grabs."

Taking a break from his phone dialing, Laborers International Union political coordinator Jim Goggin, a white-haired man with a strong Irish accent, shared Austin's enthusiasm. "Everyone thinks Ohio is winnable," he said. "We have major economic problems." Ohio has lost 265,000 jobs since 2001, including nearly 67,000 last year. Roughly 160,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost, with at least one-sixth lost because of foreign trade and job shifts out of the country, according to a report by Policy Matters Ohio, a local think tank.

But people like Goggin are as important as those grim statistics in the political calculation. As Goggin returned to his computer, veteran Cleveland politician Tim Hagan, running this year for county commissioner, dropped by the modest office. He had just addressed a new pilot project launched by the AFL-CIO, called Working America, to sign up people from nonunion households who agree with core union principles and want to receive information about issues and candidates. The trial project, underway in both Cleveland and Cincinnati, could greatly expand the audience for the labor movement's political message.

Hagan, who uses his campaign rallies mainly to attack Bush rather than his opponent in the primary, was optimistic about the Democratic presidential prospects. Why? "You're in the middle of it," he said. "It's the labor movement. It's more galvanized than ever, long before the summer months. That's why this primary process is kind of a run-through for the presidential race."

It's not just labor, though unions are stronger and more politically active in Ohio than in much of the country. Hagan reports that he's never seen as much commitment and participation from hardcore party loyalists so early in a presidential race. That's partly because "people in the Democratic Party despise Bush more than Nixon or Reagan," he said. "You can feel it in this state." But like many other Ohio political observers, he thinks that the primary has strengthened front-runner Kerry as a candidate, solidified the party by remaining relatively civil, and partly thanks to Howard Dean, it has defined the Democratic Party better. "There's a sense that we know again who we are," Hagan said. "Besides being opposed to Bush, we are a party with principles."

Hopes for a Democratic victory also reflect a variety of ambitious efforts underway to register and educate voters by local community groups and by national organizations, such as the Ohio operation of America Coming Together, one of the new "527" groups emerging after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. Some are traditional nonpartisan voter drives in minority and poor white neighborhoods (involving 50 different participating groups in Cleveland alone); others are more partisan, or simply more opposed to Bush. But all are likely to help the Democratic nominee mobilize the Democratic base in cities like Cleveland, which have to generate big majorities to compensate for the Republican strongholds in the southern and rural parts of the state. "What will determine this election is whether people in the cities turn out," Austin said, "and I think they will. One of the messages the Democrats have to carry is that Bush, like [former President Gerald] Ford, has told the cities to drop dead."

As executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, John Ryan has made his union federation's political operation, based on mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, into a local powerhouse and a model for the country. The national AFL-CIO only endorsed Kerry on Feb. 19; the Cleveland AFL-CIO almost immediately began calling and sending mailings to members on behalf of Kerry. On the weekend before the primary election, hundreds of union volunteers took part in two different neighborhood walks -- one a nonpartisan effort to encourage people to vote, the other a door-to-door effort on behalf of Kerry, Hagan and key national and local issues, including an arts- and environment-oriented economic development bond issue.

"The timing's tough," Ryan said. "If we had more time, we could deliver a bigger vote. But about equally important to pulling the lever is to get people to listen to and understand Kerry's record. This helps educate even those who don't vote in the Democratic primary, independents and even some Republicans."

But the Cleveland AFL-CIO and member unions were hard at work long before any endorsement, developing a system of communicating with members about issues through monthly mailings, phone calls, household visits, union meetings, training sessions for leaders and volunteers and work-site conversations with union members. The effort has "a focus and volume I haven't seen in my 22 years as a union official," says Ryan. But there's also a new urgency. Union officials are told to distribute political messages as promptly and widely as they would if they were going on strike the next day, said AFL-CIO state political coordinator Kyle McDermott.

The Communications Workers of America endorsed Kerry earlier than the AFL-CIO, but its members, too, are as focused on November as they are on Super Tuesday. "We've done a mailing to members and participated in rallies all across the state," says Seth Rosen, assistant to the regional vice-president of CWA. "More importantly, we've spent six months doing various kinds of member and leadership education focused on Ohio and other battleground states. If you look at what we're doing, most is about November, not the primary."

There's also a special union push among both young and old voters. Rosen said that the CWA had conducted focus groups among union members under 30 who had never voted. "They were all very concerned about the economy, about jobs, about healthcare, and they were very clear that Bush was not going to do anything about that," he said. "But they're not all convinced, many not, that a Democrat is the person who can address these issues." They were little swayed by the Republican wedge social issues, but were cynical about politics in general, a sentiment the union hopes to address.

While there are 128,000 union members in Cuyahoga County, including Cleveland and suburbs, there are about 40,000 retirees as well whom unions can reach. The retirees council has already proved its clout: It spearheaded a successful campaign to win lower prescription drug prices in the state and its early opposition to the war in Iraq pushed the Cleveland AFL-CIO to become one of the first labor councils to oppose the war. Now the council is gearing up to register retirees and drive home a message that Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan is a recipe for destruction of Medicare. But the retirees have a deeper concern that motivates them as well. "We are dismayed at what is happening to our Republic," said council president and retired ironworker C. Richard Henderson. "They're tearing the Republic apart. They're taking the pride out of being an American, for God's sake."

These labor efforts link up with campaigns underway among other key constituencies with an overlapping, reinforcing message. For example, America Coming Together has been canvassing in key cities -- Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown. ACT's 200 canvassers, a group that includes not only the usual young recruits but many middle-aged factory workers who are still out of work, register voters. Depending on the interests of people they contact, they also hand out carefully documented issue leaflets that sharply criticize the Bush administration on job creation, dropping steel tariff protection and nearly 30 other issues.

African-American communities are also primed. "The black community, working-class people, will really come out for their candidate," said Roosevelt Coats, Cleveland City Council member and former Steelworkers official. "It's just undecided who their candidate is now." Although Coats, like many Cleveland politicians and labor leaders, saw the hometown candidate, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, as his ideological favorite, Coats was also impressed with Edwards. Cincinnati-based political consultant Brewster Rhoads thinks Edwards has made a conscious and effective bid for black support in Ohio. But the real energy comes from dislike of Bush, which has pushed the level of intensity of interest in the primary among blacks in the Columbus area well above that of likely white Democratic voters, according to polling Rhoads commissioned.

Whatever the group, the anxieties are similar. "I think the economy is going to be the defining issue," said Cleveland City Councilman Jay Westbrook. "Within the last year, most people thought Bush could cloak himself in national security, but through continued economic erosion and a vigorous Democratic presidential primary contest, the country and state are shifting to a point of view that Bush is selling us out."

Last fall, a long-established factory in Westbrook's west-side ward, Midland Products, closed and moved its truck frame production to Mexico, throwing 300 people out of work. "There's an identifiable one-to-one connection between that shutdown and the start-up and expansion in Mexico," he said, making not only jobs but trade a hot issue. Globalization is also a hot topic for telephone workers of CWA. "Offshoring is a huge issue with our telephone members," Rosen said. "Manufacturing work to Mexico is old news. The hot news is call center work going to India. Companies like SBC and ATT are outsourcing call center, customer support and technical support."

But there is also a host of other reasons that Ohioans can be mobilized to oppose Bush, argued Austin, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Halliburton, body bags coming back from Iraq and the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large. "There's a reason, pick one," he said. "The biggest advantage for John Kerry is that he's not George Bush." While Ohioans normally are split about 40 percent Democratic, 40 percent Republican and 20 percent independent, Austin argued, the split is now more likely 45-45-10, making mobilizing the hard core even more important.

That might seem to give the Republicans some advantage in Ohio. All of the statewide officials, majorities of both legislative houses, and both U.S. senators are Republicans. The state is culturally conservative, especially in the south. Cincinnati, for example, is regarded as the birthplace of the antiabortion movement; it is the only city with a provision written into its charter prohibiting giving any special status to gays (including equal rights on the job or in housing); and its Indian Hills suburban area is one of the top ZIP codes for Republican fundraising in the country, with such topflight contributors as Cintas Corp.'s Richard Farmer and Carl Lindner of Chiquita Brands. According to veteran pollster Bob Dykes, CEO of Triad Research, Gore lost Ohio in 2000 largely because he was killed in rural and small-town Ohio, especially in the south, over the issue of gun control.

But Democrats hold most of the central city mayoralities in the state, including even Cincinnati, and Republican Gov. Bob Taft has sunk to less than 45 percent approval, thus leaving Bush without reliable local coattails. Austin believes that Bush's questionable service in the National Guard will hurt him in highly patriotic Ohio. Growing concerns about loss of life and expenditures of money in Iraq may also tarnish the image of the "war president."

Bush's effort to inject gay marriage as a wedge issue has left state Republican officials divided over the wisdom of a constitutional amendment, even though the governor recently signed legislation banning gay marriages. Dykes thinks that Democrats can minimize backlash on the issue if they adopt a centrist position that shows respect for people's religious convictions but argues for policies that promote "fairness and encouraging gay citizens to live stable, productive lives." The same-sex marriage issue is "obviously going to give the right wing something to get excited about, but the question is, Is he overplaying his hand and turning off suburban moderate Republicans?" asked Rhoads. "They may feel, 'This is too much. You're really going after these people. I know gay people at work and church. This seems mean-spirited.'"

Although Republicans will be fighting to hold on to their strongholds in suburbs of some cities (not Cleveland, where many suburbs are also Democratic bastions), Rhoads thinks that Democrats can "peel away" some moderate Republicans. "A lot of them are getting sick and tired of GOP mandates on their public schools without money to help them," Rhoads argued.

Could Democrats ride their issues and organization to victory in Ohio this fall? "Unequivocally, yes," said Dykes. It will depend on whether Democrats can make the economy, healthcare and retirement security issues central while successfully focusing on Bush's failures, rather than letting Republicans make the race revolve around Kerry's record. And even then, the battle will probably be pitched right up until the polls close on Election Day.

The issue was clear for Michael Davis, a 39-year-old construction laborer with seven children who was leaving the union hall, where he had paid his dues to maintain membership and a chance for work on a union project. He has been out of work for more than a year and no longer receives unemployment compensation, since Bush opposed renewing the federal extension of benefits. He believes strongly in being politically active, but he had not yet focused on the primary. When asked how he might vote, he stumbled as he tried to remember Kerry's name. But he had no confusion about what he wanted to accomplish: "I just don't want Bush in there."

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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2004 Elections Dennis Kucinich D-ohio Gay Marriage George W. Bush John Edwards John F. Kerry