Georgia unions work to elect Democrat in Dec. 2 Senate runoff

The Georgia AFL-CIO has plunged into the fight to oust Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and elect Vietnam veteran Jim Martin, a liberal pro-labor Democrat, in Georgia’s Dec. 2 runoff election.

“We’re working with our 240,000 members throughout the state to turn out a maximum vote for Jim Martin,” said Charlie Flemming, president of the Atlanta Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Chambliss was forced into a runoff when he fell short of the 50 percent needed to be declared a winner under Georgia law in the Nov. 4 election.

The stakes are so high that defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain will campaign for Chambliss.

“We are emphasizing with our members the importance of winning passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and universal health care,” said Flemming, a member of the Machinists union. “We’re hoping the economy is an issue. It’s such a mess. The Washington crowd has bent over backwards to help Wall Street but there hasn’t been any help for the working folks on Main Street.”

He added, “Without a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, a lot of these big ticket items are going to be hard to push through. Obama is going to need all the help he can get. We hope Jim Martin is there to join in support of Obama. Chambliss’ record has been to help big business. He has a terrible record when it comes to supporting working families.”

Flemming expressed disgust at Chambliss’ 2002 election ad smearing his Democratic opponent, Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran. The ad featured side-by-side photos of Cleland and Osama bin Laden with a voice-over impugning Cleland’s patriotism because he voted against a union-busting provision in the Republicans’ Homeland Security Act. Cleland voted for the Democratic version.

Chambliss and his handlers “know no shame,” Flemming said. “They depict people who have literally given their limbs for this country as ‘terrorists.’ Yet Chambliss got four draft deferments. Such hypocrisy! Chambliss deserves to be run out of town for what he did to Max.”

A victory in Georgia would bring the Democrats’ Senate total to 57, a pickup of six seats. It includes Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Mark Warner in Virginia, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Tom Udall in New Mexico and his cousin Mark Udall in Colorado. Two other Senate races are still too close to call: Democrat Al Franken trailing Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota by only 203 votes, with a recount coming, and Democrat Mark Begich 3,330 votes behind convicted felon Ted Stevens, Alaska’s incumbent GOP senator. At this writing, 60,000 absentee and provisional ballots were uncounted in Alaska.

If the Democrats prevail in these three races, they will reach the 60-seat super-majority needed to end Republican filibusters of progressive reforms.

Auto industry layoffs have hit Georgia hard, Flemming noted. Ford and General Motors plants that employed a combined 8,000 workers in the Atlanta region have shut down.

But Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue did little to save those plants, Flemming charged. “Perdue was the only governor who didn’t go to Detroit to try to convince Ford and GM to keep those plants open,” he said. Instead, Perdue pushed through a $430 million package of incentives to lure South Korean automaker KIA to build a non-union plant near Georgia’s Alabama border. “There is such a ‘race to the bottom’ seeking the lowest wages with no benefits, the cheapest suppliers, no environmental protection,” and middle-income wage earners are being wiped out, he said.

Flemming’s call was echoed by Willie E. Adams, an African American farmer, from his 60-acre farm near Greensboro, Ga. Adams is an active member of the Georgia chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

“Saxby Chambliss has done nothing for small farmers, only for the large commercial farmers,” Adams said. “I’m just struggling to hold my nose above water. I’m trying to set up to grow organic chickens, cattle and vegetables.”

He pointed out that the Democratic-majority House and Senate added $100 million to the 2008 farm bill to help compensate 60,000 Black farmers, victims of racist discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past 50 years. Obama, he said, has voiced strong support for these measures to help Black farmers hold on to their farms.

Adams too expressed outrage at Chambliss’ attack ad. “I know Max Cleland really well. He is a great person, always concerned about working people. The way the Republicans did him in with that TV ad was just so dirty, it was unreal. Jim Martin is a Vietnam veteran, like Max. He is concerned about farmers, the people.”

Update [11-14-08, 11:50 am]: Mark Begich now leads in the race for the Alaska Senate seat by about 800 votes with about 35,000 votes remaining to be counted. Pollsters believe that those votes could allow Begich to hold on to win the race. Officials are expected to finish counting the remaining ballots early next week.

Update [[11-14-08, 9:38 pm: Ballot counting continued in Alaska today, and Mark Begich expanded his lead to slightly over 1,000 votes. Alaska officials estimate that he needs to win by about 1,600 votes in order to avoid an automatic recount.