In the 2004 Iowa Caucus campaign, many unions backed Dick Gephardt’s bid for the White House and Howard Dean trumpeted the support he had from AFSCME, the union that represents government workers and is among the few growing unions in America. Four years ago, out-of-state union organizers flooded Iowa to try to turn out votes for their candidates, but in the end neither Gephardt nor Dean catapulted to the top on Caucus night.
This time around, unions may have something to prove and among all the candidates lately, John Edwards has been making the most direct appeal for union support. "Brothers and sisters, it is time to take this democracy back. It is time to take it back on behalf of the American people," Edwards said at a rally in Des Moines in mid-December. "That’s what this election is about."
Hillary Clinton has endorsement of AFSCME and other unions this time around, but Edwards has support from unions, too, like the Steelworkers and Edwards has returned to his "son of a mill worker" theme. "My father went to work for 37 years in the mills — five, six days a week, every single day. Why did he do it? He did it so his children could have a better life," Edwards said at a recent rally. "That’s the great promise of America. That’s the America that we believe in, that if you work hard, if you’re responsible, we can make certain that your children have a better life."
Donnie Qualls has worked in a steel mill in Longview, Texas, for 37 years and he did not go home for Christmas in order to stay in Iowa and work for Edwards. "That’s just how much he means…to us in labor and plus the country in general," Qualls says. "…He’s one of us…His father worked in a mill and he’s never forgot his roots. He educated himself, but he’s still one of us, you know, still workin’ people."
Edwards says the unions play a "huge role" in his campaign. "They’re knocking on doors. They’re making phone calls. As everyone knows who’s been through the caucus process in Iowa, organizing and organization is everything," Edwards says.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Edwards has shifted to an economic message geared, in part, toward union workers. "We’ve all talked a great deal about Iran and Iraq and foreign policy and I think in many ways there’s not been enough attention paid to the struggles of the middle class," Edwards says. "…The middle class is struggling in this country and they deserve a champion."
Edwards suggests his hard-scrabble roots help him connect with union workers, and with "everyday" Iowans. "The way I grew up…I think is the kind of thing that most Iowans connect to because either they did or their parents did or their grandparents did," Edwards said.
Edwards’ critics point to his expansive home in North Carolina, his expensive haircut and his personal fortune and suggest he’s no longer in tune with middle class Americans. "I make no apologies for having come from nothing, worked hard and been successful in my life," Edwards says. "I’m proud of it."