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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The Stop-Dean movement stumbles

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- On February 21, 2003, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, then the darkest of dark horses for his party's presidential nomination, spoke in a ballroom of the Capitol Hill Hyatt to the Democratic National Committee.

His first big hand came after the borrowed (and unattributed) line of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone: "I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

According to my notes from that day, another major round of applause followed Dean's statement: "I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us, because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools, too."

This past week, the consensus judgment of Dean's rivals for the Democratic nomination -- that the Vermont governor is now the unchallenged front-runner who must be stopped in Iowa and/or New Hampshire -- was evident when Dean was vilified in and after a Boston debate for his admittedly awkward paraphrase about courting the votes of guys driving pickup trucks with likenesses of the Stars and Bars on them.

This was not about alleged bigotry or pandering. No, what the attacks on the front-runner were about was denying Dean the endorsement of the largest (1.6 million members), fastest-growing and probably most racially diverse union in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

You get the picture. SEIU is 56 percent female and just 58 percent white. Make the backing of Dean uncomfortable for people of color. The plot failed. Not only will the SEIU formally endorse Dean on November 12, but almost certainly, it will be joined on that day by one of its principal rivals within labor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the second-largest union (with 1.5 million members) in the AFL-CIO.

Desperation can make any human being, including candidates, do and say really unappealing things. U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina), who has been mostly impressive up to now, attacked Dean for his Confederate pickup line in this ugly way: "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what to do."

Edwards could legitimately harbor a grudge against Dean for the Vermonter's empty boast, at an earlier debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, that he, Dean, was the only white candidate who regularly brought up the issue of race before white audiences.

That is not true. Edwards voluntarily raises the subject of race on the stump. But the latest charge from Edwards sounds like a know-nothing branding Dean a northern "outside agitator."

The Rev. Al Sharpton must remember that Jesse Jackson -- after winning one presidential primary in 1984 and seven primaries in 1988 -- became, for all practical purposes, the president of black America and a major party figure with a guaranteed, prime-time speaking spot at the national conventions. News that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) intended to endorse Howard Dean apparently sent Sharpton around the bend.

Citing the front-runner's support for the death penalty (anybody remember Bill Clinton?), his past support from the National Rifle Association and his "opposition to affirmative action," Sharpton branded Dean's an "anti-black agenda" (leaving it to our imagination what the reverend judges Rep. Jackson to be).

Dean's supposed opposition to affirmative action? His altogether sensible 1995 comment that affirmative action ought to be based "not on race, but on class." Certainly, class-based initiatives -- better schools, improved health care, a helping hand in university admissions to poor and working-class youngsters -- will disproportionately benefit African Americans but with much less resentment.

This is a big political event in campaign 2004. SEIU is the largest union in New Hampshire, and AFSCME is the biggest union in Iowa. As SEIU president Andy Stern puts it: "Gerry McEntee (the AFSCME president) could make a bigger difference in Iowa (where Dean is running neck and neck with Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri) than we at SEIU will make in New Hampshire (where Dean now has a comfortable lead)."

With the ethnic and economic diversity of SEIU and the union's able activists out front in the campaign, it will be more difficult for critics and the press to pigeonhole Howard Dean as the fey favorite of Volvo-driving, Chardonnay-sipping, Masterpiece Theater-watching elitists.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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