This article first appeared in the November 26th issue of The Nation magazine, and is published jointly online in collaboration with Huffington Post and OffTheBus. This is one in a series of eight essays by leading progressive commentators making the affirmative case for each of the Democratic presidential contenders.
The recent news that SEIU's chapters in twelve states--representing more than a million workers--endorsed the candidacy of John Edwards is a loud wake-up call. The race for the Democratic nomination is still that: a real race. For my money, there is no other candidate who will work as hard as Edwards for the nation's low-income families, the working poor, struggling students and the 47 million Americans who desperately need health insurance. Organized labor sees him the same way, which is why he has garnered this seal of approval and the boots on the ground that it represents--even in the face of the Clinton juggernaut. They know that Edwards is the candidate who can actually win the general election, the one who is thinking about people like them.
They know because Edwards stood with them through every state-level campaign to raise the minimum wage long before he announced a run for the White House. They know because he was first out with a health insurance plan that actually provides universal coverage while acknowledging what we all know to be true: the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans will have to be rolled back to pay for it. And they know because he has been solidly, unambiguously in favor of withdrawing from Iraq, even as the Democratic Party has tacked back and forth on the issue, despite overwhelming public support for ending the war.
I first met Edwards at a gathering at the University of North Carolina's Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity. Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast only a few months before and exposed the "two Americas" of which Edwards had spoken throughout the 2004 campaign. He called the country's experts together--across party lines--to debate the causes, consequences and remedies for poverty in an era of unprecedented wage inequality. For two days we discussed what should be done to enhance the mobility of the working poor, how we should deal with the competition from low-wage countries like China and what the trends in out-of-wedlock births mean for single mothers below the poverty line.
Most politicians would have given their obligatory keynote address and retired to the comfort of their leather chairs. Edwards stayed the whole time, ran virtually all of the sessions, asked intelligent questions, probed for more practical answers and stuck around to talk with the presenters about how to cull from their academic research workable ideas that could form the basis of a campaign that has as its centerpiece the eradication of poverty in this wealthy nation.
My conversations with Edwards persuaded me that he is the genuine article. Some doubt his commitment because they think a wealthy trial lawyer is not a credible force on behalf of the dispossessed. The next time Nation readers are tempted to think this way, I suggest they take a ride up to Hyde Park and check out the sprawling Hudson River mansion FDR called home. No greater contribution to the welfare of the indigent, the elderly, the unemployed and the sick has ever been made than that which Roosevelt enshrined in the New Deal. Notwithstanding the New Deal's flaws (and there were many), the social policy triumphs of the 1930s stand as an exemplar of what can be done when the will is there. If those victories could be catalyzed by one of the richest men ever to occupy the White House, then it can be done again by a self-made millionaire who earned his fortune attacking negligent corporations in the courtroom.
But enough of the cheerleading based on background. What exactly does Edwards propose to do for the country's low- and moderate-income families? First, he tells us, we must raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2012 and put legislation in place to ensure that it does not fall behind again. Second, he proposes the creation of public employment opportunities for those who cannot find jobs because they live in rural areas, blighted neighborhoods or communities without transportation.
He stands with organized labor, even as it has taken body blows over the past forty years. Despite opinion polls showing that workers want union representation, the ranks of unions are dwindling. Why this disconnect? Edwards has part of the answer: the rules governing the organizing process were written to favor management. Edwards has endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act, which will give workers a chance to organize and use their clout to increase their wages and benefits. At a time when the gap between CEOs and the rank and file is at an all-time high, this is a critical first step toward returning to workers a fare share of what their extraordinarily high productivity has contributed to the bottom line.
And while we're at it, how about focusing some attention on the regulatory structure that ensures we have safe food, clean water and working conditions that do not expose employees to hazardous chemicals? The protective legislation we rely on is all but devoid of enforcement capacity as a result of budgetary strip mining. Inspectors are disappearing, fines are not levied or enforced and families have to worry about whether the spinach on the table is safe to eat. Edwards is the only candidate who has emphasized the importance of targeting abusive industries that sacrifice worker safety and public health.
Edwards has also made serious, imaginative proposals for improving public schools, protecting people from predatory lenders, increasing college access and extending the school system to incorporate the millions who have dropped out and need a second chance. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas or handouts: they are sound investments in the fiscal health and educational well-being of the country.
There is every reason to expect that the Democrats will end up with solid majorities in the House and Senate in 2008. We need a President who will grab this brass ring. We should not squander the opportunity on tepid, middle-of-the-road, blow-with-the-wind candidates who will be too busy trying to paint themselves as tough on crime or hard-nosed on Iran to seize a chance that may not come again in our lifetime.
Katherine S. Newman is the co-author of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.