Wasted Labor

jonathan flanders jon_flanders at SPAMcompuserve.com
Thu Dec 7 20:38:42 MST 2000

Wasted labor

The Democrats told AFL-CIO activists in Florida to take affidavits and act
"nice," while the GOP mobilized its troops and got tough -- and won the
political battle.

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By Amy Bach (Salon Magazine)

Dec. 7, 2000 | MIAMI -- The Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board may deny it
was intimidated, but one fact is indisputable: The board shut down its
manual recount after raucous Republican rallies outside its meetings, and
the decision cost Vice President Al Gore hundreds of votes in his quest to
wipe out Gov. George W. Bush's lead. It looked to America like the
Republicans were the only ones who had bothered to organize their troops to
protest the disputed Florida vote.

In fact, the Democrats had squads of out-of-state AFL-CIO organizers
deployed on the front lines in South Florida. But in the bitter aftermath
of the election, the Democratic National Committee chose to use them as
affidavit takers and peaceful recount observers rather than rabble-rousers.
And now -- on the day of the largest Democratic protest yet in Florida, as
thousands gathered in Tallahassee with Jesse Jackson -- some labor leaders,
and some Democrats, are wishing they'd been allowed to make more noise
early in the game.

Within days after the Nov. 7 election, labor organizers were in attack
mode, preparing a grass-roots offensive of demonstrations and mano-a-mano
wrangling with Republicans. But according to two national labor organizers,
top DNC officials who got their orders from Gore campaign manager William
M. Daley shut down labor's organizing efforts for fear that raucous
protests would make Gore look like he was destabilizing the republic.
Though the DNC had agreed that these national labor leaders should travel
to Florida in the days after the election, DNC officials told them to
behave as "orderly, polite and genteel Democrats," according to one top
labor organizer.

So instead of using the commandos of the labor movement for their expertise
in rallying people power, the DNC deployed them as affidavit takers, and on
Nov. 20, at the start of the recount in Miami-Dade County, to sit as
recount observers. "This was a recount and not a political campaign," said
Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Gore campaign, confirming that labor
was one of several activist and legal groups sent to act as observers and
take affidavits.

According to one top labor organizer, at one evening debriefing when the
Miami recount began, "a Democratic Party official actually boasted that we
were aiming to win the Miami-Dade Canvassing Board over by being nice and
that we were coming close to winning over [Republican canvassing board
member Judge Myriam Lehr] by being nice. They actually used the word

In the end, the Republicans put into force rowdy protesters and disobliging
counters who accused Democrats of stealing ballots. They had a sit-in
outside the office of the supervisor of elections when the board tried to
move the counting to a room out of public view. Meanwhile, Democrats had
little public protesting and discouraged bickering with local officials
while their army of 200 to 300 lawyers, staff and party loyalists collected
voter affidavits in an effort to win the battle in the courts.

The Miami-Dade board, of course, shut down its manual recount Nov. 22, in
the face of the raucous Republican protests. On Friday, almost a month
after the disputed presidential election, hundreds of labor and community
activists packed into the mall in front of the Miami-Dade County Elections
Office to let the world know that they were ready to get serious. "If
you're willing to fight for our democracy shout, 'Stand up for justice!'"
yelled Monica Russo, director of Unite for Dignity for Florida Healthcare
Workers, a project of the Service Employees International Union. Echoing
her call, the crowd of mostly black Floridians chanted louder and louder in
English and in Haitian Creole with lots of "No more Bushes!!" and "Count
our votes!!"

But when the chanting died down, it was easy to hear something else in the
talk among the demonstrators: a sense of deflation that the fight came too
late. The angry voices that were harnessed Friday should have been
galvanized three weeks ago, say national labor leaders. "If there had been
5,000 people there when the canvassing board was making its decision you
would have had a different result," says this top labor organizer.

 Next page | Where were Miami's disenfranchised?

Likewise, some activist Democrats complain, the party and its allies did an
extraordinary job organizing a get-out-the-vote drive, especially among
African-Americans, but failed to capitalize on black voters' anger about
being disenfranchised by Florida ballot problems in the days after the
election. African-Americans made up 10 percent of the Florida electorate in
1998 and 15 percent in 2000, but the party failed to mobilize them early to
demand manual recounts, which might have meant hundreds or even thousands
more black votes counted in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Gore didn't
zero in on the way minorities were disproportionately hurt by the truncated
manual recount until Nov. 27, three weeks after the election.

And those activists who did complain that minorities were being
disenfranchised by the failure to pursue manual recounts did a poor job of
getting their point across with stories of real voters who'd been hurt by
Florida's flawed election process. The best account of the problem came not
from Democrats or activists but from two New York Times articles that did
the DNC's work for it -- three weeks after the disputed election. (See Josh
Barbanel and Ford Fessenden's "Racial Pattern in Demographics of
Error-Prone Ballots" and Mireya Navarro and Somini Sengupta's "Arriving at
Florida Voting Places, Some Blacks Found Frustration.")

The Monday after the Miami-Dade recount was halted, I was madly searching
for Miami's disenfranchised. An employee at the Miami branch of People for
the American Way, which spearheaded the minority vote drive and had an
Election Day hotline, told me that she had a binder filled with voters'
complaints but could not release any names until she cleared it with
People's office in Washington.

A P.R. flack and an attorney from D.C. then called to say that they could
fax me a transcript from a well-publicized hearing held weeks before and
some long-ago released complaints. The lawyer explained that they had to be
tight-lipped because they were preparing for litigation. They were saving
the good stuff for the courts.

When I asked the Advancement Project, one of the leaders of the voting
rights litigation, for names, the press person at first provided me with
the name of a woman whose story had been in the Navarro-Sengupta New York
Times story -- nothing I couldn't get from buying the Times. To his credit,
he then worked hard to find other people for me to talk with. But it took a
herculean effort to find the stuff that DNC allies should have been
throwing at me all along.

If at the end of a long fight in the courts it turns out that Gore is still
a few hundred votes short of victory, his advisors might think again about
the Democrats' strategy in Miami-Dade. In their wake they leave people like
Skip Williams, 50, a black Vietnam veteran who stood on the fringe of last
Friday's protest for hours with an American flag wrapped around his head
and a "I've Been Bushwhacked" sign in his hands. He is haunted by the fact
that his vote may not count. "I've been dreaming about it. Waking up and
thinking, 'Did I push the chad all the way through?'"

Al Gore may wind up dreaming about it too, throughout a Bush presidency.


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About the writer
Amy Bach is a lawyer and journalist.

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