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I've heard of playing hardball, but Gephardt's staff seems to be trying to win an award for it:
A top aide to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri threatened political retaliation this week against union leaders in the home state of the Democratic presidential candidate if they aided Howard Dean, underscoring growing tensions in the 2004 race.
It's assumed that those groups who back the losing horse will lose some clout with the eventual winner; that much is true in any election, primary or general, presidential or local alderman race. Explicitly stating it is considered poor form. In this case, though, Gephardt's staff went even further, threatening to take specific legislative action to punish those who stray from the flock:
The letter said [Joyce] Aboussie also told the local union officials not to campaign for Dean in Missouri, which holds its primary on Feb. 3 and which Gephardt, as native son, is expected to win.
If the union leaders ignored the threat, the letter went on, Aboussie said she would gather signatures from state lawmakers seeking repeal of a collective bargaining right won 2 1/2 years ago by state employees.
Joyce Aboussie is Gephardt's national campaign vice chair, not just some precinct worker or even state-level functionary in his campaign. She explicitly told the unions that if they failed to support Gephardt over Dean, Gephardt would seek to roll back union protections. Whether or not that's a good idea, it's very disturbing that such a threat was made -- it certainly sounds like extortion to me.
Worse yet, it shows exactly how Democrats approach unions: by pandering and bribery. If Aboussie, at least, was a true believer in unions, such legislation would be anathema to her. One would assume that Aboussie closely reflects Gephardt's political views, or else she would not be his national campaign vice chair. Interestingly, Gephardt is reacting very reluctantly to this attempt at extortion:
Gephardt, who is running for president as a champion of organized labor, sought Wednesday to distance himself from the incident. Without denying that it occurred, aides to Gephardt said he did not condone the comments made by Joyce Aboussie, his national campaign vice chair, at a Monday meeting in St. Louis. The aides also said he was not aware of her statements until after the fact.
"The meeting was not authorized by Congressman Gephardt," said Kim Molstre, a campaign spokeswoman in Washington. "Joyce was not acting as a representative for him. He knew nothing about it."
Excuse me, but this simple, unadulterated crap. While this may not have been his idea or have been "authorized" by Gephardt, the obvious fact is that Aboussie does act as a representative for Gephardt in this campaign. That's the definition of a national campaign vice chair! Whether he knew about it before the meeting or not, he knows about it now; apparently he's not prepared to take action about it. The man who has always described himself as a champion of unionism is standing by a key aide who felt comfortable threatening legislative action to make unions unavilable to a large number of Missouri citizens.
Quite frankly, Dean's going to crucify him for this and deservedly so, unless he quickly fires Aboussie. In this case, the unions are right and they're trying to warn Gephardt of his own folly. Nixon stayed loyal to aides too long, and while this isn't Watergate, I'd say there's an argument that laws may have been broken here, and the more he sticks with Aboussie, that taint will stick with him.
UPDATE: I asked Eugene Volokh via e-mail if this constituted an extortion attempt in a criminal sense, and he was kind enough to respond that he wasn't sure, but he shared my misgivings. Check out the Volokh Conspiracy to see if he weighs in on the topic later on.
UPDATE 2: The Sophorist, who blogs from Missouri, also posted on this topic. One of his readers recommended this article for more background on Joyce Aboussie, and it is a fascinating, if lengthy, read.Sphere It View blog reactions
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