Voter revolt could topple GOP: Labor spearheads fight for southern Senate seats

Harold Ford, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Tennessee, is a “favorite son” of AFSCME Local 1733, a lawmaker with a 100 percent voting record in support of working families in the Memphis district he has represented for 10 years in Congress.

Members of Local 1733 are going door-to-door to elect Ford the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

The public workers union local won fame in 1968 with its heroic sanitation strike under the slogan, “I Am A Man.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while leading solidarity marches with the workers.

If Ford defeats Republican Bob Corker, and the Democrats also pick up five other Senate seats, it would end Republican control of the U.S. Senate. The odds of the Democrats taking control of both the House and Senate seemed impossibly long only a few weeks ago, but anger against the Bush-Cheney administration and the GOP-controlled Senate and House has surged so strong that it is now within reach. At least 48 House seats held by Republicans are now considered “in play.”

Ford has pulled within a few points of Corker in the most recent poll. Corker is so desperate he is running racist television ads portraying Ford as a “playboy.” It only makes Local 1733 more angry and determined.

“We have an AFSCME ‘Big Vote’ campaign that started last Saturday,” said Dorothy Crook, who has served as executive director of Local 1733 since 1969. “We’re going through the precincts in Memphis with the lowest voter turnout, urging them to vote Nov. 7. We think history is going to be made. Our slogan is ‘Hitch a Ride With History.’”

Ford, she said, “is a young man who understands working people. He comes from humble beginnings. This is a time for change. That call is resonating in the minds of voters. We need new leadership.” Ford voted for the Iraq war resolution but now calls for “new approaches” to bring the troops home “soon and with honor.” Corker is a “stay-the-course” warhawk.

Local 1733 was instrumental in electing Harold Ford Sr., who served in the U.S. Congress for 22 years, Crook told the World in a phone interview. “We’re doing it again for Harold Ford Jr. We are the largest labor union in the effort to get out the vote. We’ve seen our movement grow as our children have become young adults. They have been taught the struggle through the union.”

Crook said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the third African American elected to the Senate in more than a century, came to Memphis last February to stand beside Ford as he announced his Senate candidacy. “We have the same feeling of excitement and enthusiasm here in Tennessee. We look forward to Harold Ford’s victory. We’re telling people how important it is to vote early, to get out and vote.”

That same mood is spurring the labor movement in Virginia where Democrat James Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is running hard to oust GOP Sen. George Allen. Webb opposed the Iraq war before it began and has been hammering Allen for his rubber-stamp backing of Bush’s failed war and occupation.

Doris Crouse-Mays, secretary-treasurer of the Virginia AFL-CIO, said the 190,000 union members in Virginia played a huge role in electing Democrat Tim Kaine as governor in 2005. The labor movement fielded 1,700 volunteers who knocked on 40,000 doors and distributed 415,000 get-out-the-vote leaflets to help elect Kaine.

Now, she said, union members are working just as hard to elect Webb. “The loss of jobs and the economy, when people are working longer hours, holding down multiple jobs just to stay alive, its time for a change,” she told the World by phone from her Richmond office.

“The minimum wage hasn’t been raised for 10 years,” she said. “Jim Webb has already said he will support an increase in the federal minimum wage. Sen. Allen voted against a minimum wage increase but he voted to raise his own salary. A rising tide is not floating all boats.”

Joe Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project, said his group does not endorse candidates yet is mobilizing for a big vote Nov 7. “We point out the obvious: Senator Allen opposes a minimum wage increase. Jim Webb supports an increase,” he said. Also on the Virginia ballot is a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriages, he said. “I think both are real, competitive races. Even if the vote is close it would be a sign that the ground is shifting in Virginia.”

In Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill is running TV ads featuring actor Michael J. Fox, a victim of Parkinson’s disease, urging a vote for her on grounds that she strongly supports embryonic stem cell research. Her opponent, incumbent Republican James Talent is a fanatical, misnamed “right to life” opponent of stem cell research.

Dan Duncan, get-out-the-vote coordinator for the Northern Virginia Central Labor Council, chuckled when asked about recent polls showing razor thin gains for the GOP. “All the polls we’ve seen are still within the margin of error,” he said. “We’re not predicting. We’re just working to get out the vote Nov. 7.”