DES MOINES – Nearly 1,000 union leaders and activists from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees got a close-up look at the Democratic presidential candidates at the union’s first-time Presidential Town Hall here on May 16 and 17. In his opening remarks AFSCME President Gerald McEntee blasted the Bush White House, calling the 2004 elections “critical for
AFSCME members and all of America’s working families.”

Union activists from across the country challenged the nine candidates to explain their views on health care, the economic crisis, homeland security, the right to organize, Supreme Court appointments, civil liberties, corporate corruption and other issues.

McEntee outlined the grim situation facing working families: “We’ve lost nearly 2 million jobs since President Bush took office. The president has cut taxes for the very wealthy and is trying to cut their taxes even more. State and local governments are suffering their worst fiscal crisis since World War II. Pensions are under attack. Health care is in crisis. Corporate greed is on the rise. Our economy is in decline.”

Calling Bush “a president who coddles corporations, stands up only for the very wealthy and attacks workers and their unions,” McEntee told the gathering: “Sisters and brothers, we must take back the White House and take back America.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. John Edwards (S.C.), Dick Gephart (Mo.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.) and Rev. Al Sharpton from New York took the stage, making opening statements and responding to questions. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who attended the reception the night before but could not attend Saturday’s town hall, fielded questions via satellite hook-up. Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) videotaped an interview since he could not make the Saturday event for religious reasons. President Bush declined the union’s invitation.

Candidates answered six prepared questions presented by AFSCME members and responded to additional questions from union members lined up behind floor microphones.

New York City Fire Department emergency paramedic Joseph Conzo, who was in the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, rescue effort, said the Bush administration is not releasing funds for first-responders, while New York, in the midst of a huge budget crisis, is closing firehouses. “He let us down. How would you improve homeland security?” he asked the candidates.

Later he told the World New York AFSCME members will participate in the “biggest and largest Get Out the Vote movement” ever. “You have to be part of the solution, otherwise you are part of the problem.” AFSCME, with 1.4 million members, has considerable political clout.

The candidates aimed their attacks at the devastating policies of the Bush administration, not each other, speaking strongly against privatization of public services and for expanded health care coverage and protection of labor rights and civil liberties.

Many emphasized their working class and trade union roots. And most reflected the theme of a class divide with a Bush administration that represents extreme wealth and far right policies.

Edwards said, “[Bush] comes from a place where wealth is inherited, not earned, where opportunity is hoarded, not shared … They honor wealth, we honor the work that produces wealth.”

Dean received a warm response when he argued to win you have to take on Bush directly, saying many are angry with the Democratic Party for not standing up and fighting.

Health care was a top issue. Most candidates outlined programs for expanding health coverage. Kucinich’s was the most far-reaching, calling for taking the profit out of health care and creating a single-payer, “Medicare for all” program. He also received strong responses to his “Workers’ White House” theme. Sharpton, another favorite of the crowd, drew standing ovations for his sharp jibes at the Bush administration.

Many of the candidates questioned the costs and rationale for occupying Iraq. Graham accused the Oval Office of a cover-up on national security. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, was one of the few to discuss broader foreign policy. He drew applause when he said although the U.S. has military might second to none, “we need to make some friends,” alluding to the Bush policies of unilateralism and preemption. He also got a strong response when he noted that he had opposed Ronald Reagan’s dirty war in Central America, and “blew the whistle” on Oliver North.

Finding an “electable” Democratic candidate is a major concern for AFSCME. McEntee told reporters the union is “focused like a laser on defeating George Bush.” The Town Hall was the kick-off to engaging AFSCME membership in an endorsement process expected to culminate this fall. The event also initiated a grassroots mobilization of the union’s membership “to fight like hell” to win the White House.

The union sees the 2004 elections as even more critical for working families, and for American democracy. “If this crowd wins again, we may not even be able to hold one of these town hall meetings,” McEntee commented.

Paul Johnson, an Iowa Department of Transportation worker and president of Local 2999, and Janet Hansen, a mental health worker from Cherokee, Iowa, told the World their most important issues are “health care, no privatization of Social Security, helping kids and helping seniors.” Asked what it will take to defeat George W. Bush and elect a worker-friendly president, Hansen said, “Since we don’t have a lot of money, it’s going to take muscle and determination from the grassroots.” It will take “door-nocking, phone calling, parades, signs,” added Johnson.

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