Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards won thundering applause from about 500 members of Oregon AFL-CIO this Tuesday morning. The former senator from North Carolina spoke to a convention of the state labor federation in Seaside.
Another presidential candidate — Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich — spoke on Sunday.
Oregon’s presidential primary is next May, long after other states make their picks. But as Colin Fogarty reports, that hasn’t dampened the energy of union members.
John Edwards message was tailor made for delegates to the Oregon AFL-CIO, eager to hear a presidential candidate voice their agenda.
The former Senator railed on trade agreements that unions oppose. He said the recent hike in the federal minimum wage should have been higher.
Edwards called for universal health care. He said he would make joining a union as easy as signing a card, and make it harder to break a strike.
John Edwards: “When you are walking that picket line and I’m President of the United States, nobody, nobody will walk through that picket line and take your job away from you. Not when I’m President of the United States.”
Edwards drew distinctions between himself and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who leads in national polls. Last month the Senate approved a resolution urging the state department to define the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Clinton voted for it, a decision Edwards criticized.
John Edwards: “We have learned the hard way, you give this president an inch and he will take a mile. And we cannot give him an inch, not when it has to do with taking America to war. We saw what happened on this war in Iraq. It makes me worried that six months from now or a year from now, are we going to hear again, well, if only I had known then what I know now.”
Though Edwards trails in national polls, he did well in a straw poll of Oregon Democratic activists meeting in Sunriver last weekend. Edwards finished a close second to Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Clinton came in a distant third.
After the applause died down in Seaside, Edwards met with reporters.
John Edwards: “I think one of the reasons I’m here is that we have very good support here. And I feel very good about doing well here in Oregon.”
Oregon’s labor movement is increasingly seen as an especially effective force in state politics.
Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain says one in four Oregon voters comes from a household with at least one union member. He says the labor federation spends much of its energy communicating with own members about how to vote.
In fact, Chamberlain says one of the results of this convention is a vote to increase union dues to raise about $300,000 specifically for political campaigns.
Tom Chamberlain: “What I’m taking home from this is what I thought, but I didn’t know, and that this union movement, this labor federation is charged up, we’re united and we’re ready for 2008. We’ll make sure we have political funding. We’ll make sure that we have the best communications available. We’ll make sure we have money for mailings to our members and a strong get-out-the-vote program.”
That organization has set its sights on unseating Republican Senator Gordon Smith. The president of the national AFL-CIO John Sweeney came to Seaside to tell delegates he’s got his eyes on Smith too.
John Sweeney: “He has got to go now!”
Both Democratic candidates vying for the chance to take on Smith next year — attorney Steve Novick and Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley — made appeals to the AFL-CIO convention.
The labor federation could make an endorsement next month. Oregon union members remain up for grabs in the presidential race too. The national Service Employees International Union recently declined to make any endorsements for president. That effectively leaves endorsement decisions to state branches of the union.
John Edwards impressed many of the delegates here, including Ed Bickett, a retired electrician from Klamath Falls. He’s skeptical of Hillary Clinton and thinks Barack Obama doesn’t have enough experience. But Bickett says he’s keeping an open mind.
Ed Bickett: “Nobody has my vote until I vote. I change my mind all the time. Never lock in on a candidate. Study them all.”
No matter who he ends up supporting Bickett echoes a sentiment voiced by nearly everyone at the Oregon AFL-CIO convention — there’s plenty of fire in the belly for next year's election.
Ed Bickett: “We have George Bush to thank for that. That’s the only good thing he did for us, is to wake us up.”