WASHINGTON - The AFL-CIO's largest union endorsed Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean on Thursday, political sources said, providing his campaign a huge boost in momentum and grass roots muscle.
The executive board of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, one of the nation's most diverse and politically active labor unions, backed the former Vermont governor over his eight Democratic rivals after a meeting in Washington.
"We have reached a decision and we are hopeful there are other unions who share our excitement for Dr. Dean's candidacy," said SEIU President Andrew Stern, who declined to formally announce the endorsement until another major AFL-CIO union makes its endorsement decision next week.
Stern, with Dean standing at his side wearing a SEIU jacket, said he had been asked by the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to wait to announce the decision until after it meets next Wednesday.
But several of the 63 members of SEIU executive board said there was widespread enthusiasm for Dean's candidacy as they decided to make the endorsement.
The highly coveted endorsement will give Dean's insurgent, Internet-driven campaign a more mainstream source of party backing and could begin to ease Democratic complaints that his support is concentrated too heavily on white, upper and middle-class liberals.
It also enhances his grass roots organizational reach, with the union promising to mobilize supporters to help Dean in the early caucus state of Iowa, where he is battling Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri for the top spot in polls, and in the first primary state of New Hampshire, where he has opened up a wide lead.
BLOW TO GEPHARDT
The move is a blow to Gephardt, who has strong labor support nationwide and the backing of 20 international unions. Gephardt is counting on labor to put him over the top in Iowa and elsewhere, but failed to win the backing of the full AFL-CIO labor federation last month.
The endorsement could open the door for more labor support for Dean, perhaps even from the influential 1.4 million- member AFSCME.
The show of support also comes at a good time for Dean, who has been caught in a firestorm of criticism all week for saying he wanted to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags" in their pickup trucks.
The comment drew charges that Dean was insensitive to blacks and demands that he apologize, and caused Dean on Wednesday to say he regretted the pain he may have caused African-Americans or Southern white voters.
The SEIU is one of labor's most diverse unions. A majority of members are women, 20 percent are African American and it represents more immigrant workers than any other U.S. union.
The Democratic candidates courted the SEIU's most active members at a September meeting in Washington, and Dean told Stern the union's backing would be crucial to help him shorten the Democratic nominating race.
The union represents about 750,000 health care workers, an issue that Dean, a doctor, has promised to highlight during the campaign, although he has been largely defined by his outspoken stance against the Iraqi war.
Dean picked up his first AFL-CIO endorsement, from the painters union, last week, along with one from the California Teachers Association.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd