WASHINGTON – On their first big day back in Washington after weeks on the campaign trail,the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination spoke Tuesday morning to a Communications Workers of America conference.
Sens. Barack Obama,D-Ill.,and Hillary Clinton,D-N.Y.,were blocks from the Capitol at the annual CWA conference,asking for votes from a sympathetic audience and talking through a list of policy points.
The CWA includes telecommunications,information technology,media,law enforcement,health care,public service and airline industry employees. It is the largest telecommunications union in the world,with more than 1,200 local affiliated unions in 10,000 communities.
In October,CWA members voted online not to endorse a candidate. The poll generated 30,000 responses from the union's 700,000 members. It asked which candidate the member favored and whether the union should endorse nationally and allow local endorsements.
Though members voted by a margin of 52-48 percent to withhold an early national endorsement,they approved local endorsements. Nonetheless,many local unions have not chosen a candidate.
A chapter in Newark,Del.,Local 13101,endorsed Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.,D-Del.,but has not picked a new candidate since Biden's withdrawal.
“We'll endorse once all the smoke clears. We love both of them,” said Bud Speakman,president of the Newark local,of Clinton and Obama. “When they figure it out,or when the superdelegates figure it out,that's when we'll endorse and we'll do whatever they need us to do to win.”
In the poll,taken before former senator and labor champion John Edwards dropped out,CWA members were split among the Democratic candidates. About 80 percent voted Democratic and 20 percent Republican. Clinton and Edwards were most preferred,split only by 206 votes. Obama came in third.
Both candidates received standing ovations at their separate entrances and throughout their approximately 30-minute speeches. Obama elicited more interrupting cheers.
Clinton spoke first,after being introduced by Democratic superdelegate and CWA Treasurer-Secretary Barbara J. Easterling.
She attacked President Bush's policies of the last seven years and said the presumptive Republican nominee,Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,would be no different. To applause,she said the Bush administration has “taken to questioning the patriotism of those who try to organize.”
“They're trying to revise history of what it means to be a patriot,” she said.
Clinton picked on McCain for his willingness to privatize Social Security. On health care,she criticized Obama for failing to commit to universal coverage.
The insurance companies “are going to have to make money the old-fashioned way – by taking care of people,” Clinton said to applause.
For an organization that hasn't endorsed,the compliments for Obama from labor leaders were flying. CWA President Larry Cohen introduced him and praised his “enthusiasm,commitment,energy and dedication.”
Multiple times during his speech,the audience applauded and chanted Obama's name. Even Easterling,who announced she is pledged to Clinton as a superdelegate,nodded vigorously,looked at the ceiling in emphatic agreement and clapped her hands over her head during Obama's speech.
Several audience members said Obama was more charismatic,but that the contest was still close.
“From hearing the two candidates this morning,I think they both strongly believe in what they're saying. It's more than just a campaign strategy,” said Barbara Johnson,a local president from Freehold,N.J. “Ten years down the road,I think both would still feel the same way.”
Johnson said members from her local support both candidates. Though the union hasn't endorsed,Johnson supports Obama because she admires his vision of unification and focus on working people.
Edward Miller,a union member from Annapolis,Md.,said he is attracted to Obama's ideas,though he originally preferred Edwards. He said Clinton is “kind of bound in her ways already.”
Another Annapolis member,Denise Burns,said she is torn.
“Both Obama and Clinton have great ideas,but something's going to hit me,and when it hits me I'll know. But right now,I'm on the fence,” Burns said. “Obama's got charisma,but Hillary just takes over the room.”
Burns said the labor issue is more important to her than any others,though she is excited about having a woman candidate.
“Ultimately,it's about who's going to do the best for working people,” she said. “I don't know if this society is going to be ready for either of them.”