SEIU boss knee-deep in national politics

John Edwards has more support from Service Employees International Union members than any other presidential candidate, though not enough yet for an endorsement, said Andy Stern, president of one of the largest U.S. labor groups.

About 2,000 of the union's leaders will meet Sept. 17 in Washington to listen to pitches from the major Democratic candidates and take a straw poll that will help guide the group's endorsement, Stern, 56, said in an interview.

"Edwards has done an awful lot with leaders and members in our union," said Stern, who expects a decision on whether and who to endorse by the end of October. He said Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York have strong support within the union, too, and together may be able to fend off any endorsement of Edwards, a former North Carolina senator.

Stern's group is one of the most sought-after endorsements for Democratic presidential candidates. The union represents 1.9 million health-care workers, janitors, security guards and other service employees; it's the fastest-growing labor group in the country and the largest in New Hampshire, which plans to hold the nation's first primary.

Separately, Stern endorsed a plan outlined last week by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel for a major overhaul of the tax code that would repeal the alternative minimum tax and reduce payments for as many as 90 million U.S. households, while putting more of the burden on the richest, including executives of private-equity firms.

Private Equity

He ridiculed a recent effort by the Private Equity Council, a Washington trade group representing the largest buyout firms, to block any tax increase by enlisting businesses owned by women and minorities, including Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson and former National Basketball Association star and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, now chairman of Magic Johnson Enterprises in Los Angeles.

"I've been to every private-equity firm in every office and I'm not saying I've met everybody, but I think I've not met anybody who's not a white man," Stern said.

On health care, Stern said yesterday that a proposal by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to raise $12 billion needed to expand coverage to the state's 6.7 million uninsured may be the impetus for other states to overhaul their health- care systems.


"Every issue that is being raised in California about who pays and how do they pay and how much do they pay will be raised at a national level," Stern said.

He said the California measure would force every governor to take notice, and say: "Can we do that here?"

Stern has long called for an end of health coverage tied to employers because the model no longer fits the needs of a global economy.

"The sad thing is employers, who should be the ones screaming to get out of the employer-based system," he said. "CEOs are the dinosaurs of the 21st century because they seem not to be able to make the switch to the fact that we have a global economy."

Returning to the 2008 elections, Stern said there are "big regional differences" in the membership's preferences for presidential candidates. "Midwesterners love Obama'' while "Californians are much more Edwards," he said.

Most of the Democratic contenders will address the Washington forum next week. The union later will determine whether any one candidate has the more than 60 percent support of members required to make an endorsement before the primaries.

No Lock

So far, no candidate has a lock on the endorsement, he said, and a strong performance at the Washington forum could bring a surge of support.

"If Obama rocked the place," he said, or if Clinton did well, "you don't know what's going to happen."

Edwards, 54, who trails Clinton and Obama, 46, in national polls, has been aggressively courting unions.

Clinton, 59, leads the Democratic field in the latest Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll of voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. She has gained backing from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

In 2003, the SEIU backed Vermont Governor Howard Dean. This year, Stern asked every candidate to spend time with a union family and work alongside a member as part of the group's challenge to ``walk a day'' in a union member's shoes. Clinton worked as a nurse, Obama took over the job of a homecare worker while Edwards toiled as a nursing-home worker.

Clinton Strategist

Stern also said he spoke to Clinton's campaign aides about Mark Penn, her top campaign strategist, who has been criticized by labor officials. Penn, chief executive officer of the New York-based public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, should ``stop taking any clients in his business that are anti-union,'' Stern said.

He stopped short of saying that Clinton's association with Penn would prevent SEIU from backing her.

On the issue of private equity, Stern said buyout firms "aren't paying their fair share" of taxes.

He said he favors prefers Rangel's "global" approach to more narrowly focused Senate legislation because he fears Democrats may simply increase taxes on Wall Street's elite and claim victory without addressing broader inequities in the tax code.


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