1/3/08

Union army preps Iowa withdrawal

Folks were celebrating 2008 early at the Valley West (IA) Inn -- early by local standards, anyway.

As Central Standard Time clocks passed 10:59 p.m., several party-goers took a break from a small New Year's celebration to call family members back in Pittsburgh, where the year was about to end. They were part of a contingent of steel workers who'd come to Iowa to spend their Christmas week knocking on doors and making phone calls for former Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate their union endorsed back on Labor Day.

A few minutes later, Chuck Rocha, the United Steelworkers' political director, interrupted the low-key event to give the crowd of about 40 a combined briefing and pep talk as the final hours before tomorrow counted down. Soon, he was interrupted by the piercing ring of a cell phone.

"If that's a caucus-goer, you can answer it," he joked.

The dozens of volunteers, scattered among the tables topped with noisemakers and party hats, are among thousands of partisan volunteers from both parties who have swelled this state's population over the last year in the run-up to the most expensive, most elaborately organized caucus campaign in the state's history.

A few hours earlier, about 20 minutes away on Interstate 235, dozens of other temporary migrants were crowded into office space on the third floor of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's downtown offices, making last-minute phone calls to potential Republican voters.

"I came here because he's stood up for what he believes in. He's honest and he looks people right in the eye," said Kumar Lakhavani, an international relief worker from Greensboro, N.C.

Rob Martin, a University of Virginia senior, came here from neighboring Illinois to work the phones because, he said, he's a former Arkansas resident who liked what Mr. Huckabee did as governor.

Across the noisy room Caleb Clemmon, 12, methodically dialed his way through another voter list. Caleb and his sister Marissa, 14, rode for roughly 30 hours with about 20 other home-schooled students to devote part of their Christmas vacations to the Huckabee bid. He explained that they're part of a political science class, linked by the Internet, that jointly decided to use the caucuses as its firsthand political classroom.

The USW activists, the home-schoolers and the other partisans have thousands of counterparts working directly or parallel with each of the campaigns. There are few restrictions on direct volunteer work, but the third-party groups, including the steel workers, are technically separate from the campaigns and are legally required to work at arms' length from them.

Their contributions include manpower and shoe leather, but in some cases are major financial commitments of hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising campaigns over the airwaves and through direct mail. Total expenditures by third-party groups will reach well into the millions.

In addition to the steel workers and the United Mine Workers unions, who jointly endorsed Mr. Edwards' campaign back in September, the candidate's effort has been abetted by groups including the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and several locals of the Service Employees International Union.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, which got considerable credit for Sen. John Kerry's come-from-behind victory here four years ago, is working for Sen. Chris Dodd.

Standing in Mr. Dodd's headquarters last week, as the candidate embarked on a cross-state tour in a bus with the IAFF logo, Harold Schaitberger, the union's influential president, acknowledged that Mr. Dodd appeared mired in the second tier of the Democrats' large field. He said he would consider their efforts worthwhile if they propelled the candidate to a showing strong enough "to get a ticket out of Iowa," one that would allow him to remain a credible candidate in the primaries and caucuses over the next month.

The conservative Club for Growth has invested heavily in anti-Huckabee advertisements, attacking his record as governor. The Republican Majority for Choice, a group opposed to restrictions on abortion rights, has invested in ads deriding former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his abandonment of the pro-choice position he held when he first ran for governor.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has benefited from spending by Emily's List, the Washington group dedicated to supporting female candidates.

As a door-knocking crew of USW volunteers headed out Sunday afternoon, they passed a giant billboard that was a reminder that their fellow union, AFSCME, the largest in Iowa, was heavily invested in Mrs. Clinton's campaign as well.

They had rendezvoused at a USW local hall a half a block from a sprawling Firestone plant in Des Moines. The USW took over representation of the plant's work force after the merger of the rubber workers and steel workers several years ago.

Wayne Donato of White Oak, a member of the USW's Pittsburgh staff, drove 12 hours to spend his New Year's holiday working for Mr. Edwards.

"We're out here on quote-unquote vacation," he said.

Like many of his USW colleagues, Mr. Donato is familiar with the Iowa political scene after working here for the unsuccessful campaign of former Rep. Dick Gephardt, whom the union endorsed four years ago.

A door-knocking crew quarterbacked by John Campbell, a Firestone employee and local USW official, headed out to hit the doors of Highland Park, a middle-class neighborhood of small homes neighboring the 68-acre plant. With him were Andy Zanaglio of Canonsburg, who works at the USW's Boulevard of the Allies headquarters, and Elizabeth Laycak, a political science student at Point Park University who's interning with the USW's political staff.

While only one door produced a response that could be described as rude, their harvest was a mixed bag of encouragement and disappointment.

"It worries me to see Hillary get in there," one man observed. "I'm for Obama or Edwards. If this country doesn't watch itself we're not going to have any more middle-class people."

As they patrolled in the fading winter light, a call to Mr. Campbell's cell phone was testimony to the frenetic competition for the state's voters. At the other end was yet another out-of-state volunteer, a Chicago woman canvassing Des Moines Democrats for the Obama campaign.

After offering some lighthearted criticism of Mr. Obama, the USW activist informed her that while she was canvassing for him, he was out canvassing for one of Mr. Obama's chief rivals.

"Sister, I'm one reason you're going to be drinking Coke and not champagne at your party," he said -- and hoped.

(post-gazette.com)

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