Two labor unions that provided financing for a shadowy Democratic political group running tough commercials against former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont criticized the advertising campaign yesterday, and one said it might ask for its money back.
Both unions, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Laborers' International Union of North America, have endorsed Representative Richard A. Gephardt, who said yesterday that he knew nothing about the group running the commercials.
Rick Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists, said the union donated $50,000 to the group, Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values.
Mr. Sloan said the group's treasurer, David Jones, solicited the money by saying it would pay for "issues ads." The union, Mr. Sloan said, believed the group's commercials would focus on economic and health care policies.
But in the end, he said, the advertisements were not what the union had bargained for, especially the latest one, in which an announcer questions Dr. Dean's national security qualifications as a camera zooms in on a magazine cover showing Osama bin Laden's face.
"Osama bin Laden has nothing at all to do with this campaign; it's a travesty," Mr. Sloan said. "We think the ads are despicable and if it was up to me, we'd ask for a refund."
He said the union's leadership had not yet had a chance to meet and discuss requesting its money back.
Noting Mr. Gephardt's slippage in some polls since the group began running advertisements against Dr. Dean two weeks ago, Mr. Sloan said, "They are doing more damage to Dick Gephardt than any of his opponents could have hoped to have done or dreamed of doing."
Donald J. Kieniewski, political director for the laborers, said he was displeased with the advertisement featuring Mr. bin Laden and another highlighting the National Rifle Association's past support for Dr. Dean.
"If it were up to me, I would do them differently," Mr. Kieniewski said. "I'm not so sure I would do an ad as inflammatory as that."
But, he said, he agreed with many of the general points the group was trying to make. "Take away the picture of Osama and the issue it raises about leadership and experience is now an important issue," he said.
For all of the heat surrounding the advertisement, it was unclear last night whether it had been broadcast very substantially in South Carolina and New Hampshire.
A third union that supports Mr. Gephardt, International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, said it gave $25,000 to the group. Its general president, Joseph J. Hunt, said he had not personally reviewed the advertisements and even if he had a problem with them, "there's nothing I can do about it now."
The admission by the three labor unions that they gave to the Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values, which has refused to disclose its donors until it is legally required to do so early next year, only furthered the perception that it was somehow connected to Mr. Gephardt's campaign.
Its treasurer, Mr. Jones, is a former fund-raiser for Mr. Gephardt. The group's president, Edward F. Feighan, a former Ohio congressman, donated $2,000 to Mr. Gephardt's campaign. Its new spokesman, Robert Gibbs, had been the press secretary for the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts until a few weeks ago.
Mr. Gephardt's campaign took steps to distance itself from the group.
During a conference call with reporters yesterday Mr. Gephardt said he knew nothing about the group and called for it to reveal its donors.
"If I wanted to run ads of this kind," he said, "I'd run them. We're running ads. And I wish they weren't running the ads."
Mr. Gephardt's media adviser, Bill Carrick, said in an interview, "These independent groups may believe they're helping us, but the truth is these ads at best end up being a distraction."
Dr. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, meanwhile, wrote a letter calling on his fellow campaign managers to demand that the advertisement "be pulled from the airwaves immediately."
Dr. Dean yesterday told reporters, "This is a mistake for these Democrats to be doing this. It's why people have given up on Democrats, and it's why people have given up on people from Washington in general."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company