Democratic Candidates Unload on Bush

Times Staff Writer

Seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates muted their differences with each other and sharply criticized President Bush’s record on the economy, health care, judicial appointments and homeland security at a town meeting here Saturday sponsored by a powerful union.

Unlike the heated recent debate in South Carolina, the seven Democrats -- two candidates were unable to attend -- almost entirely avoided challenging each other in their joint appearance before nearly 1,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, who gathered from around the country.

Instead, the candidates competed to deliver the most enthusiastic denunciations of Bush, the Republican Party and big corporations, usually in pointed populist terms.

“The Republicans and George Bush, they honor wealth,” said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. “We honor the work that produces wealth.”


The most engaging moment in the session, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, came when a New York City Fire Department emergency medical technician who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center accused Bush of failing to sufficiently fund homeland security and asked the candidates what they would do differently.

The seven candidates on the stage dramatically rose to applaud the questioner, Joseph Conzo. They then repeatedly charged that Bush has left America “vulnerable to future attacks because this administration has not done its job and has not increased our ability to have homeland security,” as Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri put it.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham delivered the most searing indictment, repeating his recent charges that the war in Iraq has diverted America’s attention from the terrorist threat.

“What this administration has done is they have conducted an ideological war in Iraq where they have not found the weapons of mass destruction upon which it was predicated, and at the same time they have stopped the war against terror,” Graham said. “We have let Al Qaeda off the hook.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the most prominent opponent of the Iraq war among the leading Democrats, echoed Graham. “Everybody is glad to see Saddam gone,” he said. “But the truth is it is a diversion. We are not safer today than we were before Saddam Hussein left.”

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who was scheduled to deliver a commencement address in New Hampshire on Saturday, addressed the Iowa session later by satellite. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who does not campaign on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, appeared in a recorded interview.

From the pledge by Gephardt to pursue an international minimum wage, to the promise by Edwards to give workers greater representation on corporate boards, to the call by dark-horse Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement, the candidates wooed the crowd of activists by highlighting the most liberal aspects of their agenda.

With nearly 1.3 million members, AFSCME is one of the largest and most politically effective unions in the AFL-CIO.

The union’s early endorsement of Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, when most industrial unions were supporting liberal Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, was a key to Clinton’s victory.

The union hopes to endorse a candidate in this race by next fall; the session in Iowa, home of the first caucus in the Democratic race next January, was billed as the opening of that endorsement process.

Gerald McEntee, AFSCME president, opened Saturday’s meeting with a stemwinder against Bush that was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations.

“While the president is trying to rebuild Iraq, whether it’s bridges, tunnels or giving them the money [for] providing universal health care in Iraq, we say to the president and all the members of that party that they are neglecting the basic needs here in Iowa and across the country,” McEntee said to loud applause.

Moments later, McEntee, referring to Bush, loudly declared: “He’s got to go” -- and the crowd of union activists responded with a chant of “gotta go.”

That set the pattern for the morning, as the audience cheered loudly each time the Democrats denounced Bush’s record and jeered each mention of the president and other Republicans such as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

It was telling that when the candidates delivered their opening statements, the audience gave standing ovations only to two long-shot contenders with the most unabashedly liberal messages.

First the audience rose for Kucinich, who pledged to carry out government-funded universal health care -- and taunted Bush over the failure to find conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Moments later, the crowd also gave a standing ovation to the Rev. Al Sharpton when he echoed McEntee in chiding Bush for promising U.S. money to rebuild Iraq.

“What about the 50 states we already occupy?” Sharpton said to loud applause.

After the event, union officials said that Kucinich, Sharpton and then Gephardt received the highest ratings from a focus group of AFSCME Iowa members who watched the event while a pollster measured their reactions. Kerry appeared after testing was completed but also received an enthusiastic response.

The candidates spent much of the unusually lengthy session politely discussing an array of domestic issues; the temperate tone may have reflected the criticism several received from others in the party for jabbing each other more sharply in South Carolina this month.

Indeed, the audience rose in applause when the union’s secretary-treasurer, William Lucy, urged the candidates to “fight the enemy and not each other.”

None of the contenders at any point seriously challenged the predominantly liberal views in the audience; rather they stressed the aspects of their agenda likely to appeal most to the crowd.

On health care, for instance, Gephardt said his plan would provide states grants -- of at least $50 billion -- to offset their costs in providing health care to their employees, most of them AFSCME members.

Kucinich touted his plan for a government-run single-payer universal health-care system to be funded by a new 7.7% payroll tax on employers. Edwards, while offering no specifics on how he would expand coverage, promised to try to restrain health-care costs by taking on what he called “big insurance companies, big HMOs [and] big pharmaceutical companies.”

Edwards notably did not reprise his criticism in South Carolina that Gephardt’s plan would provide unjustified tax breaks to corporations while revoking elements of the Bush tax cut that benefited middle-income families.

Several of the Democrats also pledged expensive new initiatives to help states struggling with budget deficits that experts say are the deepest since World War II -- another issue of great concern to the union.