Photo: Davitt Photo Alliance.  Courtesy of AFSCME. 
 
Fighting for Working Families: An AFSCME Presidential Town Hall Meeting
Polk County Convention Complex
Des Moines, Iowa
Saturday May 17, 2003

Transcript Provided by and Reprinted with Permission of AFSCME
Copyright 2003 FDCH e-Media, Inc.
(f/k/a Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.)

PART I - Introduction and Opening Statements
PART II - Six General Questions Posed by Selected AFSCME Members
PART III - Questions from the Floor
PART IV - Closing Statements
 

MCENTEE: Good job, Bill.
Always does a good job for this union.  Let's hear it again for him.  Come on.
(LAUGHTER)
We do want to thank not just C-SPAN for covering it live, but all of the TV folks are here, and also a very proud welcome to all of the print media that are with us.  We appreciate the fact that they are covering this.  We think it's an important step on the way to the nomination and eventual defeat of Bush, and we just think it's very good that they're here.  I think we owe them all a round of applause for being with us.
(APPLAUSE)
We're now going to begin I guess what you would call sort of a meat- and-potato part of our program, maybe the most important part.  Let me begin by introducing the candidates in alphabetical order and ask that they take their seats on the stage as they introduced.
Former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, Illinois.
(APPLAUSE)
Former Governor Howard Dean, Vermont.
(APPLAUSE)
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
(APPLAUSE)
All right, John.
Representative Richard Gephardt, Missouri.
(APPLAUSE)
OK, brother.  He brought his own signs.
(LAUGHTER)
Senator Bob Graham, Florida.
(APPLAUSE)
Can you find yourself?  Are you lost?
Representative Dennis Kucinich, Ohio.
(APPLAUSE)
The Reverend Al Sharpton, New York.
(APPLAUSE)
We want to thank each and everyone of these candidates for coming out here to Iowa and joining us today.  Following lunch, we will meet with Senator John Kerry via satellite.  He couldn't be with us today, a previous commitment.  We will also watch a pre-recorded interview with Senator Joseph Lieberman.  He could not be with us in keeping with the observance of his faith.  We did -- and out there in TV land -- we did invite President Bush, but he declined our invitation.
(APPLAUSE)
But we did invite him.
Today's program has four sections.  We will begin with opening remarks from the candidates.  Then six of our AFSCME members will ask questions, addressing what we see as the major concerns of our union.  This will then be followed by questions from the floor, sort of a freedom hall, and you've got toe be ready for this, freedom hall.  And then we will have closing remarks from the candidates.  We plan as best we can on concluding at about 11:30.  Candidates, as your moderator, do you think I look like George Stephanopoulos?
(LAUGHTER)
(UNKNOWN): Better.
MCENTEE: Better, better, good.
They said, better, better.
(APPLAUSE)
Good, much better.  If I just made his money I'd be all right.  Candidates, as your moderator, I will make sure we keep to the time -- you see it directly in front of you -- the time allotted, and interrupt when necessary.  We have installed those time clocks, which you can see from your seats.  We will begin with opening statements. They will be limited to two minutes.  The order has been determined by a lottery, secret lottery, and we will begin with Governor Dean.
Governor Dean?
(APPLAUSE)
 

DEAN: Are you sitting down or going up there?
MCENTEE: Down.
DEAN: Well, I'm delighted to be here, and I -- one of the things that I often get introduced at in labor meetings like this is I'm the only doctor in America with a 100 percent COPE record.
(APPLAUSE)
But I'm particularly proud of the fact that last spring the AFL- CIO gave me their Paul Wellstone Award for helping to organize a hospital, the hospital that I was attending at.  You know, we've lost a lot in the last two-and-a-half years: two million jobs; we have a president who talks tough on homeland security but is strangling the cities and the towns and not giving them the money that's necessary to protect them; we have a president who recommends cutting taxes, which make it impossible to have a decent health-care program in this country.  The president's prescription for everything is take two tax cuts and see me in the morning.
(LAUGHTER)
My prescription is a little different.  I want a different kind of America.  In our state everybody under 18 has health insurance, and I want an America -- we can go out and explain to people that they can be like everybody else -- the British and the Germans and the French and the Italians and the Israelis and the Canadians and even the Costa Ricans all have health insurance that can't be taken away, and we can have that, too, in this country with a Democratic Party president.
(APPLAUSE)
I want an America where human rights are attached to trade policy so that our jobs can't be taken away.
(APPLAUSE)
I talk to Democrats all over this country, and I find the Democrats are almost as angry at the Democratic Party as they are at the Republican Party.  We have got to understand that the only way that we can beat this president is to take him on directly.  Don't vote for any tax cuts of any kind.  Let's explain to the American people that tax cuts are killing our jobs and making it impossible for us to have a decent health-care system.
(APPLAUSE)
Don't vote for unfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind, which make is impossible to explain to the American people that those kind of unfunded mandates are wrong.  They drive up your property taxes. What we need is full funding of mandates like special education.  So stop strangling our cities and towns.  This president -- this president has passed the largest tax cut in American history.  He's given $1.7 trillion to his corporate friends like Ken Lay, and added $10,000 worth of debt to every child in America. We can do better than that.  This president has ruled us by making us afraid of each other and making us afraid of others.  I want an America where we're going to rule by hope again, where we're going to have a tough country, but a country where we acknowledge our responsibility for each other.  We're going to build an America where we're all together again, no longer divided by fear and tax cuts for people who don't need them.
MCENTEE: Thank you very much.
(APPLAUSE)
Thank you very much, Governor Dean.
We'll now hear from Senator Graham.  Keep your eye on that clock, all right?
 

GRAHAM: Good morning, and thank you AFSCME for giving us this opportunity to be with you today.  I have worked with many of you over the years.  I respect what you do for Americans everyday.  I also want to thank Jerry and Bill for the great leadership that they are providing to AFSCME.  My name is Bob Graham.  I'm running for president of the United States because I believe this nation is on the fundamentally wrong track.
MCENTEE: Here, here.
(APPLAUSE)
GRAHAM: I am an optimist.  I believe America's best days are still ahead.  But to realize those best days, we should start with a hard-headed assessment of what is happening today.  I'm running for president to secure our economic future. In the last two years, we have lost jobs.  We've lost our pensions.  We've lost confidence in the American economy, and the only solution that the president offers -- more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  As president, I will invest in our people.  As president, I will assure that we will not have the corporate greed which is paying bonuses in the suites while the workers are being fired in the basement.
(APPLAUSE)
MCENTEE: Yes.
GRAHAM: As president, I will provide health security.  I will assure that Medicare is reformed with the first reform being the provision of a prescription-drug benefit.
(APPLAUSE)
And we won't herd all Americans in an HMO to get it.  I will do everything in my power to move us on a step-by-step basis towards full health coverage for all Americans and with costs that they can afford.  And finally, I'm running for president because of your personal and our national security.  We all admire the valor of the troops.  But as the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I can tell you what is really happening.  Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror.  We are less secure, not more secure.  The terrorists have regenerated.
GRAHAM: And the president is now attempting to cover up the facts.
Just as you are being asked to be held accountable in your work, the Oval Office should also be accountable for its.
(APPLAUSE)
MCENTEE: Can you wrap it up, Senator?  Wrap it up?
(APPLAUSE)
GRAHAM: My name is Bob Graham.  I'm running for president of the United States.  I would appreciate your support.
MCENTEE: Thank you, thank you.
(APPLAUSE)
Thank you very much.  We'll now hear from Senator John Edwards.
 

EDWARDS: The president -- the president says he wants to have a debate about values.  Well, we're going to give him that debate, and we're going to give the American people that debate.  I come from a family where my dad worked in mills all of his life.  When I was young I moved from one mill town to another, to another until I finally settled in a little town called Robbins, North Carolina.  My father worked very hard because he believed it was the right thing to do, and he thought it would help build a better future for his family.  That's the basic bargain that we make with the American people.  If you work hard, if you act responsibly, you can build a better life for yourself and for your families.  This is the bargain that George Bush is breaking every single day.  He comes from a completely different place.  He comes from a place where wealth is inherited, not earned.  He comes from a place where opportunity is horded, not shared.  Yeah, this is....
(APPLAUSE)
... this is going to be a debate about values, Mr. President. It's going to be a debate about the future of America and the kind of country we want.  They, the Republicans and George Bush, they honor wealth.  We honor the work that produces wealth.  That's why...
(APPLAUSE)
... that's why we should have tax cuts for working families who have a new baby, not tax cuts to eliminate taxes on dividends.  They fight to expand special privileges fore special interests.  We fight for opportunity for everybody.  That's why they fight to protect subsidies for big banks. I want to use that money to provide college for every single young person in America who is willing to work for it.
(APPLAUSE)
We believe in taking responsibility.  They believe in shifting the buck.  They believe in passing that buck to somebody else.  That's why Congressman Boswell and I have a bill in the Senate to provide $50 billion to communities and states all over America that desperately need help.  If it seems like they don't believe in public-sector unions, there's a reason for it.  The truth is worse than that.  They don't believe in the public sector.  They are fighting every day...
(APPLAUSE)
... to dismantle it.
MCENTEE: Could you sum it up, Senator?  Sum it up.
EDWARDS: We cannot play defense with George Bush.  We have to take this fight right at him.  We must play offense. It is what I have done every single day of my life.  This is a fight for the working people of America.  It is a fight for our values, and it is a fight we will win.
(APPLAUSE)
MCENTEE: Thank you.  Thank you, Senator Edwards.
We will now hear from Ambassador Moseley Braun.
 

MOSELEY BRAUN: Twenty years ago -- thank you -- 20 years ago when I first ran for the state legislature in Illinois, my father got a beat-up old truck that was colored green, about the color of your tee-shirts, and on the side of it he had a big sign that said, "Fight the greedy and help the needy."  And I was of course horrified that he was driving through the streets of Chicago screaming "Fight the greedy, help the needy." But here I am 20 years later and in this world, with this leadership that only George Orwell could have given us, this crowd is into helping the greedy and fighting the needy.  They -- my father had it right. George Bush has got it wrong. They are helping the wrong people and hurting the rest of us.  Tax cuts, no-bid contracts, a war of choice that's going to leave us rebuilding Beirut while cities in Chicago are -- cities in America are falling apart.  This is absolutely the wrong direction.  And I submit to you that what they are doing is trying to deliver the last blow of an extreme political agenda that wants to, quote, "star of the beast." You've heard the term before.  Republicans have used it before.  Star of the beast.  What they'd say is star of the public sector, what they mean is star of the American people.  This is economy is not working for working people, because this crowd does not appreciate, understand or have any respect for working people.  Democrats believe that government can play a constructive role to serve the public interests, to serve everybody.  And I want to thank you in AFSCME, because not only do you serve the public interest in what you do every day, but in your political activism, you connect the dots for the American people, between tax cuts for the wealthy and a stalling economy, between health care for the few and everybody else left out, between Enron and the shrinking pensions.  I'm Carol Moseley Braun.  I have the credentials to do this job. I have the experience to do this job.  I want to rebuild America, not just physically, but also spiritually.  There was an editorial in the New York Times yesterday about crumbling schools.  I tried to rebuild crumbling schools as a senator. I want to continue to rebuild our schools and our infrastructure to make the invest in state and local governments to provide the services to the people that they need.  I want to change the way we fund education and provide universal health care coverage for everybody.  I see my time is up.
MCENTEE: Yes.
MOSELEY BRAUN: I should have timed my speech better, but suffice to say that I want to bring us together as a people and restore the rights that our parents fought to give us.
Thank you.
MCENTEE: Thank you.
(APPLAUSE)
No pun intended, but we're going to turn to our left here.  We thank Ambassador Braun and we'll now hear from Representative Dennis Kucinich.
(APPLAUSE)
 

KUCINICH: Thank you.
(APPLAUSE)
As president I'll lead the way to stopping privatization which has been about carving up our government and selling it to the lowest bidder.  We'll put an end to that.
As president...
(APPLAUSE)
... as president, I'll lead the way to protecting Social Security and stop the privatization of Social Security and bring the retirement age back to 65.  People are working their whole lives.  They should be able to retire at 65 years old, not keep moving that retirement age back.
(APPLAUSE)
As president, I'll stop the privatization of Medicare.  It is time for a fully funded universal health care system.  Medicare for all.  Take the profit out of health care.  Get the insurance companies out of health care.  Return health care to the people.  As president -- as president I'll make sure that workers' rights are enshrined in a workers' White House.  Because workers have a right to organize, a right to bargain collectively, a right to strike, a right to be able to be compensated if you're injured on the job. Certainly a right to fair wages and fair benefits.  As president, I'll issue an executive order which will say that anyone who gets a federal contract will have to provide that when 50 percent of the workers sign up for a union, there's an automatic union.
(APPLAUSE)
As president...
(APPLAUSE)
... as president, I'll set aside those provisions of Taft Hartley which attack the right to organize.  As president -- with 100 percent AFSCME voting record, I might add -- one of my first...
(APPLAUSE)
... one of my first acts in office, recognizing how trade has devastated so many towns around Iowa and the nation, one of my first acts in office will be to cancel NAFTA and the WTO.
(APPLAUSE)
I ask this administration: "Tell me Mr. Bush, where are those weapons of mass destruction?"  I've seen those weapons and I'll tell you where they are. Joblessness is a weapon of mass destruction.
(APPLAUSE)
Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.
(APPLAUSE)
Hopelessness is a weapon of mass destruction.  Let's bring back hope in America.  Let's bring back jobs in America.  Let's bring back workers' rights in America.
Thank you.
(APPLAUSE)
MCENTEE: Thank you.  Thank you, Representative Kucinich.
We'll -- as soon as we get our breath, we'll hear from the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Reverend?
(APPLAUSE)
 

SHARPTON: Next January, the Iowa caucus will take place on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 35 years ago marching for garbage workers, union workers in Memphis, Tennessee.  A year later I became youth director of a division of his organization in New York, appointed by Reverend William Jones and Reverend Jesse Jackson.  For the last 35 years, not only have I stood for workers' rights, I've been there.  I've marched on the picket lines.  I've gone to jail with labor leaders.  I'm sure I'm the candidate on this platform that's been on more picket lines and unquestionably more jail cells with union leaders than anybody in this race.
(APPLAUSE)
Because this is not about what you say. This is about what you do.
(APPLAUSE)
This is not about making sound bites.  This is about having a life- style that protects those that make America what it is.  We have just ended the military side of a war in Iraq, where we were told there were weapons of mass destruction.  We have the victims of weapons of mass distraction, because while they told us we were going at weapons in Iraq, they put through tax cuts that have given us record state deficits, and they want to balance those deficits on the back of municipal employees all over America.  We need a war against that.
(APPLAUSE)
They enjoyed the surplus economy.  They deregulated business. Now when the economy goes down, they want us to pay for a party that we weren't invited to, that we weren't guests of, and that we never enjoyed.
(APPLAUSE)
I'm running for president to make health care a constitutional right.  Not only do we need universal health care, we need to give every American the right to health care, the right to education, the right to vote.  We don't have those constitutional rights.  And lastly, it is important if this president can argue that we can spend millions if not billions of dollars to take care of Iraq because we must occupy it, what about the 50 states we already occupy?
(APPLAUSE)
MCENTEE: Sum it.  Sum it up, Reverend.  Sum it up.
SHARPTON: Summing it up, I'm running for president against a man who believes in privatizing Social Security, privatizing Medicaid, privatizing education.  Al Sharpton only wants to privatize one thing.  I want to privatize George Bush and make him a private citizen in 2004.
MCENTEE: Thank you very much.
(APPLAUSE)
Thank you very much, Al.
(APPLAUSE)
Thank you.
We want to thank Reverend Sharpton, and we'll now turn to Representative Dick Gephardt.
(APPLAUSE)
 

GEPHARDT: Thank you, Jerry.
As many of you know, I come from a labor-union household.  My dad was a teamster and a milk-truck driver in St. Louis.  Everyday that we were with him he told us that because he was in a labor union, we had food on the table, and we had a roof over our heard.
(APPLAUSE)
My mother was a secretary. Neither she nor my father got through high school.  My mother passed away this last week.  She was a great woman.  She gave me my values, and she made me everything that I am.  And every day in the House of Representatives, I've tried to simply represent people like my parents, the hard-working people like you, who make this country what it is and make it great.
(APPLAUSE)
And when I'm in that Oval Office, you're going to know that unlike this president, you will have a president that cares every day on every issue about the hard-working people of this country, who are in labor unions, who work hard every day to make this country go.
(APPLAUSE)
Now to beat this president, we've got to be bold, and I'm going to be bold.  I'm going to put real choices in front of the American people on health care, on the economy, on education, on energy, on foreign policy.  And one of the main issues I'm going to bring is health care.  I have a health-care plan that gets everybody guaranteed health care that cannot be taken away.  I will bring a plan that says to every employer in the country, "You've got to cover your employees," and I'll give them generous tax credits to get it done.  I will cover part time as well as full time.  I'll cover retirees as well as active, and I will give an equal subsidy to every state and local government in this country, so that all public employees are treated the same as private employees with health care in this country.
(APPLAUSE)
If you want health care than can never be taken away from you, if you want to make sure that you have guaranteed care where the price won't go up and it won't be taken away, if you want health care that goes to every public employee in this country, state and local government and the like, if you want to give $1.5 billion from the federal government to state and local government here in Iowa in the next three years, then I am your candidate for president of the United States.  I need your help.  We're going to beat George Bush...
MCENTEE: Thank you.
GEPHARDT: ... in November of 2004.
MCENTEE: Thank you.
(APPLAUSE)
Thank you.

Sisters and brothers, we're now going to move to the question- and- answer portion of our program -- one of them -- beginning with questions from six of our members, about major issues for all working families. PART II >>