In their first public forum, the nine Democratic presidential contenders were judged on the basis of their programs to meet the needs of children. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) 30th annual conference, April 9 to 11 in Washington, D.C., made human needs the focus as the 2004 election campaign begins.

African-American, Latino and white conference participants flooded Capitol Hill, carrying the message to their members of Congress that the Bush administration’s targeting of at-risk children to pay for millionaire tax cuts is unacceptable.

At a special breakfast for Headstart and child care providers, delegates from Louisiana to Appalachia and Florida to Oklahoma spoke of their power as community anchors to turn the tide against George W. Bush in 2004. The 1,000 participants in the youth section of the conference began mapping out strategies to turn out the potentially powerful youth vote.

In a comparative report “Compassionate Presidential Words – Uncompassionate Administration Deeds,” the conference exposed the devastating impact of the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthy on education funding, healthcare funding, child care assistance and housing.

In his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush had boldly stolen the CDF slogan, “Leave no child behind.” Once in office, he arrogantly used that slogan to sell legislation which imposes regulations on public schools without providing any funding, thereby weakening public education.

“This is the most dangerous time our children have faced since the CDF began 30 years ago,” CDF President Marion Wright Edelman said, recalling the hope that the organization’s mission would have been fulfilled by now.

Oklahoma State Senator Angela Monson, president of the National Conference of State Legislators and Mayor Jane Campbell of Cleveland, Ohio, spelled out what the Bush economic program means in people’s lives. Describing unthinkable cuts in basic services, both urged the delegates to organize and make the grass roots voices heard. Both warned against allowing one interest to be pitted against another, explaining that the Republican agenda of dismembering government must be seen as a whole.

“It is not war that makes us strong,” said Monson. “Investing in children and families makes us strong…The federal government is cutting so much, we have to work together and create a tension loudly all around us.”

Rejecting the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, the conference was structured to build support for the comprehensive Dodd-Miller Act to Leave No Child Behind (S-448 / HR-936). The legislation projects lifting every child from poverty by 2010. It includes major investments in quality child care, Head Start and pre-school, health care, nutrition, housing and family support for entering the workforce from welfare.

The conference did not shy away from discussion of the war on Iraq and the Bush administration’s foreign and military policy. Youth delegates gave repeated standing ovations to speakers during a special town hall meeting, “No to War, Yes to Children.” The poems of Sonia Sanchez against war, racism and economic injustice, and her appeals that every young person become involved brought many delegates to tears. “You will always remember this afternoon when you gathered here and met Sonia Sanchez,” promised CDF youth organizer Taj Brown.

Most young people polled favored the presidential candidates who opposed the war, and who talked straight to their needs and issues. Al Sharpton inspired the most enthusiasm, while Dennis Kuchinich received high regard for his endorsement of the CDF program for $20 billion to Leave No Child Behind.

The Democratic candidates for president met privately with AFL-CIO leadership hours before appearing at the Children’s Defense Fund. While labor’s presence was not felt at the CDF conference, the defeat of the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans will require the combination of organized labor’s voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, along with such constituencies as youth, educators and parents in rural communities, and newly-awakened voters for peace.

As delegates headed home to the Northeast, the South, and the Mid-West and West, the theme of the conference for “New Voices, New Choices! – It’s Time to Truly Leave No Child Behind” promised to turn into new organizing at the grass roots, and, hopefully, at the ballot box.

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