Since Jan. 2, Iowans have been getting to know Mary Schlicte, R.N. In a barrage of folksy television spots and clever mailings, the veteran nurse has been telling them about her deep roots in Cedar Rapids, her seven children and her devotion to Howard Dean.
“I’ve looked Howard Dean in the eye,” says Ms. Schlicte, as the soft focus catches the flowers over her left shoulder. “I believe him when he says he’s going to work for me.”
Ms. Schlicte, with her earnest delivery and blond bangs, is pure Iowa. But the man who’s making her a star is just as pure New York City. He’s Dennis Rivera, the slim, dashing president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. The campaign to help win the heartland for Dr. Dean is being run out of a nondescript office in his towering green headquarters over the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and financed with more than $500,000 of his union’s cash.
Mr. Rivera is well-known in New York political circles as one of the state’s most powerful insiders, a man who brings voters and money to the table. Now, he is using his clout on behalf of a national candidate, and on a political battlefield far from home.
“He has shown on the state level that he can be a brilliant operative,” said Fred Siegel, a New York–based senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. “He’s now taking those skills and becoming a player on the national level.”
Born in Puerto Rico to an Irish father and Puerto Rican mother, Mr. Rivera has been a fixture of the left since his days leading protests against the Vietnam War. Now he runs a union representing more than 237,000 health-care workers, and he has a deep interest in state and federal spending on Medicaid, Medicare and other programs that help employ its members. Local 1199 is the biggest local in the fast-growing service employees’ union, and it plays a central role in city and state politics. Last year, Mr. Rivera and his troops were crucial in pushing the Republican-controlled State Senate to override Governor Pataki’s veto and pass a budget that maintained spending on health care and other services.
The union chief was an early supporter of Dr. Dean, telling his health-care workers that the Vermont doctor “is one of us.” Union insiders say his support was crucial in pushing the powerful SEIU into endorsing Dr. Dean.
“The SEIU overall, including 1199, is going to make a tremendous effort in terms of the Presidential campaign,” Mr. Rivera’s top political aide, Jennifer Cunningham, told The Observer .
But unlike most local union leaders, Mr. Rivera isn’t about to be overshadowed by the Washington-based union headquarters. He has taken the unusual step of pouring more than $500,000 into a state 1,000 miles away where the local has no members.
“Politically, they are head and shoulders above other locals,” said Scott Levenson, a New York political consultant who often works with labor. “We shouldn’t expect them to behave the same way.”
The vehicle for 1199′s investment in Howard Dean is a new political action committee called Take Back America SEIU. Its $1 million budget is financed half by Local 1199 and half by the main SEIU, according to union officials. Since the SEIU international draws some of its funding from the big New York local, 1199′s members are bearing most of the cost of the campaign.
The $1 million commitment is more than a drop in the bucket. So far, Dr. Dean has bought $3 million in Iowa airtime out of a total of about $8 million in campaign advertising in that state, according to the Associated Press. The union is focusing on television advertising in Iowa, Ms. Cunningham says, because the SEIU is relatively thin on the ground in that state.
The operative directing the Iowa campaign is Patrick Brennan, a 28-year-old from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He has good connections in New York’s political establishment-he ran Bill Mulrow’s unsuccessful campaign for state comptroller in 2002, and his brother, Martin Brennan, is the state director for Senator Charles Schumer. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Brennan was unshaven and pressed for time. He had packed up his office at 1199′s 42nd Street headquarters-the only decoration in the bare room seemed to be a small map of Iowa on the wall behind him-and was rushing to La Guardia Airport to catch a 7 p.m. flight to Chicago, with a connection to Des Moines.
Mr. Brennan’s $1 million budget is particularly valuable because it’s so-called hard money-coming in small sums from thousands of union members-so it’s not subject to the tough restrictions on advertising in the weeks leading up to an election. He is, however, forbidden from coordinating his campaign with the official Dean effort or with the SEIU.
Take Back America isn’t the only independent actor to hit the airwaves in Iowa as the new campaign-finance rules weaken national parties and channel political money through other groups. A group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values, financed by trade unions that support Representative Dick Gephardt, briefly aired a series of attacks on Dr. Dean which featured an image of Osama bin Laden and suggested that Dr. Dean is unfit to protect America from terrorism. The president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has also pledged to spend more than $1 million on “independent expenditures” for Dr. Dean.
On Jan. 7, the anti-tax Club for Growth will start airing its second attack on Dr. Dean: This one features a farmer and his wife railing against Dr. Dean’s “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times –reading … Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”
A Local With Clout
But Take Back America is unusual in that the driving force behind it isn’t a national union or a Washington-based lobbying organization, but a single union local based in New York. The campaign’s message is clear: Dr. Dean is the man to fix the country’s health-care system. The television spots feature three nurses and an elderly man talking about prescription-drug costs and other issues. A series of mailings-labeled “Iowa Caucus Goers Survival kit”-has a kitschy touch, featuring an elderly couple climbing up steep rocks to reach two bottles of prescription drugs and, more obscurely, two doctors in surgical scrubs fishing knee-deep in a river. The committee is paying to send them to all 80,000 households expected to participate in the caucus.
It remains unclear how much impact the campaign will have in Iowa itself.
“Television advertising in this campaign isn’t as important as it used to be,” said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communications at the University of Iowa.
But the message that Mary Schlicte is sending is clear, and powerful, in what it says about Dennis Rivera and his union.
“[Local] 1199 has already established itself in the city and on the state level with the budget fight,” Mr. Brennan said. “Now they’re establishing themselves on a national level as well.”
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