Pelosi, Sweeney Try to Turn Page

Seek to ‘Clear Air’ About ’04

Posted September 19, 2003 at 3:50pm

House Democratic leaders met privately with the top officials of the AFL-CIO last week in an attempt to mend tensions between the two sides over the labor organization’s role in the 2004 elections.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney headlined the closed-door session, which took place Wednesday evening in Pelosi’s Capitol office as Hurricane Isabel made its way toward Washington. The meeting coincided with Sweeney’s announcement that he would seek another four-year term at the helm of the federation beginning in 2005.

Several Democratic sources familiar with the Wednesday sit-down, which was called to clear the air over growing frustrations on both sides, described it as a “positive meeting” at which pledges were exchanged to work together in the coming election.

House Democrats have been unhappy with some officials at the AFL-CIO in recent months for publicly expressing their concern that the minority party cannot retake the chamber in the 2004 election. Leaders had focused their frustration in particular at AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman, who has characterized House Democrats’ chances for regaining power as poor.

“There’s obviously some anger about the comments that have been made,” one knowledgeable Democratic aide said. “This was about clearing the air. We can’t have those comments. We need to be on the same team.”

Another Democratic source familiar with the session said House Democrats had been harboring some “negative feelings” toward the federation, especially since the party’s leaders believe they have consistently pushed organized labor’s agenda.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that any of this had to take place,” the source said. “That nine months into the year, there would be any question of the AFL-CIO’s commitment to winning the House back.”

A senior union official said the AFL-CIO leadership’s view of the electoral landscape was discussed during the gathering but added that Sweeney remains committed to helping Democrats win next year.

“This all comes from one quote,” the official said, noting that Ackerman was “really saying that [House Democrats] face an uphill climb” in winning back a majority in the House in 2004, not that it was impossible for such a victory to take place.

The source added that, in the view of the AFL-CIO leadership and union strategists, the overall political outlook for House Democrats has improved somewhat due to the ongoing problems in Iraq, the slow-recovering economy and growing federal budget deficit, although the situation remains fluid.

“It’s getting less challenging, but it’s still difficult” for Democrats to win back the House, said the official.

Four other prominent House Democrats attended Wednesday’s session, including: Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) and Steering and Policy Co-Chairman George Miller (Calif.). AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel and Ackerman also participated.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, said the meeting touched on a variety of issues but declined to discuss details.

“It was very positive,” Daly said. “We’ll continue to work together.”

Kori Bernards, communications director for the DCCC, described the session similarly, saying: “It was a meeting where we talked about how to make a very close relationship even closer.”

Knowledgeable Democratic sources indicated both House leaders and federation officials vowed better communication and coordination in the future, reminding each other that they are allies who need one another now more than ever in a GOP-dominated Washington.

The AFL-CIO and other big unions have focused most of their attention so far this cycle on the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as Senate races, although the same labor official said the powerful federation “will do whatever it takes, expend whatever resources are needed” to help pro-labor candidates win House seats where they can.

“Labor made a pledge to help House Democrats this election,” a well-placed Democratic aide said.

Still another House Democratic staffer said: “There was discussion and commitments on behalf of the leadership and Sweeney to attempt prospectively to work better together and have the common interest of winning the House back.”