One of the nation’s largest unions is leaning toward endorsing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for president next week, support that would bolster his credentials within the Democratic Party.
An endorsement of Dean by the 1.6-million-member Service Employees International Union would also deal a blow to rival Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, whose strategy for winning the Democratic nomination depends heavily on backing from labor groups.
“It is becoming clear that the passion of the members lies with Gov. Dean,” SEIU president Andrew Stern said Thursday. “Ultimately, the decision before the board will be to either endorse him or endorse no one.”
Privately, some union officials said they expected Dean to win the nod.
Stern and the union’s other leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday in Washington to make a decision.
A Gephardt spokeswoman, Kim Molstre, declined to comment on Stern’s remarks. But she noted that Gephardt had won the support of 20 unions, more than any other candidate. The unions have 5 million members, including 54,000 workers in Iowa, where Jan. 19 caucuses kick off the nomination process.
Unions are a key constituency within the Democratic Party. Their support not only translates into votes but also ends up providing candidates with funding as well as manpower to distribute fliers, post lawn signs, staff phone banks and perform other labor-intensive campaign chores.
Thus, the SEIU’s backing of Dean would provide his campaign an organizational boost and amplify the financial advantage he already enjoys over his rivals.
Members of the SEIU, one of the nation’s fastest-growing unions, are a mix of public- and private-sector service workers, including nurses, clerks and probation officers.
A Dean spokeswoman, Courtney O’Donnell, declined to comment in detail, saying only, “We want the endorsement of the SEIU. It would add tremendous strength to the campaign.”
Another big union that remains uncommitted, the 1.2-million-member American Federation of Teachers, met in early October but was unable to reach a consensus. That union plans to wait until after the primaries to make an endorsement.
Also yet to endorse is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union, with 1.5 million members, will consider making an endorsement when its top officials meet the first week of December.
The leadership of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization that represents 13 million workers, has said it will only endorse a candidate who can win the support of individual unions representing at least two-thirds of its membership, or 8.8 million workers.
Bill Carrick, a Gephardt strategist, conceded that the odds of his candidate winning the AFL-CIO backing seemed slim. “It’s a pretty daunting challenge,” Carrick said.
In one sense, support for Dean from the SEIU would not be surprising: Stern, the union’s president, is among the most liberal labor leaders. And throughout the endorsement season, the union has been primarily focused on the candidates’ views about expanding access to health care -- which Dean has identified as his top domestic priority.
Also, some SEIU officials said privately Thursday that for many members, Dean’s experience as a medical doctor carried substantial weight on the issue.
But an endorsement from such a major union would be an unusual prize for a candidate like Dean, who has positioned himself as an outsider critical of the party establishment.
Indeed, an embrace from the SEIU would continue Dean’s rapid evolution from an insurgent with few resources into a conventional front-runner with significant financial and organizational assets.
An SEIU endorsement also would give Dean a blue-collar beachhead in big states to supplement the strong support polls have shown he enjoys among college-educated Democrats attracted to his liberal social positions and opposition to the war in Iraq.
Dean spoke in a Bay Area park Wednesday afternoon at a rally of workers from California Pacific Medical Center who are fighting their employer, Sutter Health, for an election on whether to unionize.
Dean donned a purple sweater emblazoned with the SEIU logo and told about 350 workers and supporters that he backed their bid for representation by the union.
“What we have had in this country is a terrible erosion of the ability of middle-class people to make a living and send their kids to college,” Dean said. “Organizing is the way to fix that problem.”
The workers chanted for Dean and pressed in to get autographs and shake his hand.
Some political pundits and union officials suggested that Gephardt’s failure to secure the backing of still-uncommitted unions underscored the major question surrounding his candidacy.
His pro-labor record is considered unassailable, but some union leaders wonder if his campaign can generate the excitement and the fund-raising ability needed to unseat President Bush.
“My gut tells me that some people are questioning whether he can beat Bush,” said Mark Smith, president of the Iowa chapter of the AFL-CIO.
Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.