Government

15 presidential hopefuls woo Iowa labor

Democrats pay homage to unions, living wage, American dream

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks to a delegate Wednesday at the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, convention at Prairie Meadows in Altoona. He was one of 15 Democratic presidential hopefuls to speak to the convention. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks to a delegate Wednesday at the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, convention at Prairie Meadows in Altoona. He was one of 15 Democratic presidential hopefuls to speak to the convention. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
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DES MOINES — A crew of 15 Democratic presidential candidates spent Wednesday paying homage to American workers and wooing labor “foot soldiers” who will be major players in mobilizing supporters in Iowa’s Feb. 3 precinct caucuses.

Nearly 200 union members attending the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, state convention were treated to 10-minute sales pitches from 2020 contenders hoping to secure their help in the nation’s first test of organizing strength on the path to the White House and a chance to beat Donald Trump.

“Unions built America’s middle class and unions will rebuild the America’s middle class,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said to rousing applause.

For his part, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used the occasion to announce a comprehensive plan to at least double union membership in his first term as president, rebuild the middle class and substantially raise wages.

Likewise, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet unveiled a plan to ensure hard work is rewarded with a living wage by investing $500 billion in workers over 10 years — especially for the 70 percent of Americans without a four-year college degree — that would include high-quality training like registered apprenticeships.

Former Vice President Joe Biden told the crowd, “You’ll never have a better friend in the White House, I promise you,” adding he would not have won his first race in Delaware had it not been for labor. “As the old saying goes, you brung me to the dance — that’s no joke.”

Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland stressed his family’s labor ties and his union bona fides as an entrepreneur, pledging to always “put the worker first” — a message also emphasized by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio via video teleconference.

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New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker touted his Iowa roots and energized the crowd by saying 2020 has to be more than just defeating Trump.

“We are not going to beat him by using his tactics on his turf fighting on his terms. That’s how he wins,” Booker told the assemblage. For Democrats, next year’s election has to be about aspiring to recreate the American dream for people being left behind rather than falling “deeper into tribalism.”

“We can’t define ourselves by what we’re against. We’ve got to start defining ourselves by what we’re for and who we’re for,” Booker said. “This election is not a referendum on one guy and one office. We know who he is. This election is a referendum on us and what we stand for and what we’re willing to fight for.”

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said 2020 poses a “make-or-break moment” for this nation.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said that for all of Trump’s talk, “China’s cleaning our clock right now” in competing for international markets.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who played on her Midwest and union roots — drew a big laugh by asking “do you know the difference between Donald Trump and Greenland? Greenland is not for sale.”

She rallied the crowd by promising to tell Americans the truth even if they didn’t always want to hear it. “Right now we’ve got a guy in the White House that doesn’t do that,” she said, noting Trump promised a big infrastructure investment but never delivered it while she would.

Other presidential hopefuls addressing the convention were Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Obama administration Cabinet member and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, political commentator Ben Gleib, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and retired Navy officer and former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak.

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IFL President Ken Sagar said the 2018 election showed that working people are more concerned about jobs, health care, trade, education and retirement than the Mueller report or Russia or other issues that dominate the political discussions in Washington.

Sagar said Trump managed to pull up to 38 percent of labor support in 2016 by focusing on issues important to working families but essentially has failed to deliver on his campaign promises.

“I think that’s clearly going to be a problem for the president. He has not fulfilled many of his campaign pledges and, in fact, he’s attacked many of the institutions that are important to labor,” Sagar said. “We have an opportunity here to show where the candidates we have today are on the issues versus what he said he was going to do and what he’s actually done.”

Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, said he doesn’t think the delegates will choose a candidate based on the day’s speeches.

“Some of the people here, maybe a lot of the leadership, have seen these folks, but I think there are people in this room who have not seen all of these people,” Homan said.

“I believe that what today is that there’s going to be a lot of people who say, ‘Gee, I really like what Cory Booker said,’ or ‘Gee, I like what Elizabeth Warren said or what Joe Biden said,’ ” he added.

“But what I hope it will do is incite people to get involved. I don’t care who their candidate is at this point in time. Get involved.”

Many convention participants were upbeat about the new campaign cycle.

“I think we win” in 2020, Homan said. “I also will say I thought we were going to win in 2016.”

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“Granted there are people in this race as you go down the line, love them for stepping up and wanting to do that, but they can’t win. We got five or six candidates — and no, I’m not going to tell you who they are — that I believe are top tier candidates who any one of the six or seven of them can beat Donald Trump, can make the argument that things have to change.”

Mike Olson, a member of IBEW 405 in Cedar Rapids, who had previously seen all of the candidates, said he believes jobs is the biggest issue for union members going into the 2020 election. “And who will address the social ills like income inequality,” he said. “Workers should get a fair slice of the pie.”

Preya Samsundar, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Democratic candidates are getting pushback on plans for government-run health care and Green New Deal proposals from workers concerned over how the changes could impact jobs and insurance coverage.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, blue collar workers are in a better position than before as the economy has led to increased hourly wages, benefits and lower unemployment rates,” Samsundar said in a statement. “Meanwhile, 2020 Democrats continue to push policies that will kill jobs and destabilize their families’ financial situation. When faced with the choice of economic success or failure, the choice for Iowa workers is clear.”

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