Sunday, December 25, 2005

''Democrats to woo voters on wage issue''

"WASHINGTON -- New Year's Day will bring the ninth straight year in which the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $5.15 an hour, marking the second-longest period that the nation has had a stagnant minimum wage since the standard was established in 1938.

Against that backdrop, Democrats are preparing ballot initiatives in states across the country to boost turnout of Democratic-leaning voters in 2006. Labor, religious, and community groups have launched efforts to place minimum-wage initiatives on ballots in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas, and Montana next fall.

Democrats say the minimum wage could be for them what the gay-marriage referendums were in key states for Republicans last year -- an easily understood issue that galvanizes their supporters to show up on Election Day.

''It's a fairness issue, and everybody gets the concept of fairness," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, a long-time proponent of a higher minimum wage. ''It's a moral issue. It's a value."

Of the seven states that appear most likely to have a minimum wage increase on the ballot, five were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points in last year's presidential election, and all but Michigan supported President Bush. Republican senators in three of the states -- Ohio, Arizona, and Montana -- are high on Democrats' target lists, as they seek to pick up seats in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.

Congressional Republicans' efforts to block an increase to the federal minimum wage allows Democrats to take a popular stand that contrasts the priorities of the two parties, said former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democrats' 2004 nominee for vice president.

''It's a powerful political issue because it's the right thing to do," said Edwards, who visited Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio this year to rally supporters for minimum wage initiatives and plans to travel more extensively next year in key states. ''It's something that we should not be shying away from, and something we should be pushing."

Edwards, who made poverty a central theme of his presidential campaign, is working closely with local groups and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nationwide network of community groups.

In addition, Democratic-leaning religious groups are working with local churches to build support for minimum wage initiatives. The ''Let Justice Roll" campaign is asking leaders of churches, synagogues, and mosques to talk to their members on the importance of the minimum wage in a nation-wide push timed for the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 14-16.

''We bring it straight to the voters, state by state, and all the polls indicate people want people to be paid reasonable wages for their work," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic House member from Pennsylvania

''I don't think it can hurt [Democrats] next year if on five or six or seven states there's a ballot initiative that can lift the minimum wage," Edgar said. ''There's a lot of enthusiasm when you talk about minimum wage."

Republicans say they're not concerned by the efforts. Voters approach ballot measures and candidates for office differently, and the president and the Republican Congress have a strong record of job and economic growth, said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Many Republicans support modest increases in the minimum wage when tied to economic changes such as cuts in required overtime pay.

''America's economy is best served by reasonable increases in the minimum wage, so that we don't hurt small businesses from growing and creating future employment opportunities," Diaz said. ''Nationwide, voters will continue to reject Democrat support for higher taxes and lawsuits that impair our nation's economic progress."

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington, said the minimum wage represents an area where Democrats can put forward an accessible proposal that Republicans are uncomfortable opposing. That makes it attractive as Democrats seek to fill out an election-year agenda for a campaign they hope will turn on national issues.

''I can see it as a Democratic-labor effort to make sure that their voters turn out," Rothenberg said. ''The minimum wage hasn't been a big issue in a while, but it's always an issue that if Democrats are on the offensive, Republicans are going to be in a tough spot."

Democrats point out that under Republican control of Washington, the federal minimum wage hasn't budged since September 1997. Inflation has caused the minimum wage's buying power to erode to its second-lowest level since 1955, according to a study released this month by the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

''Things have gotten more expensive, and wages have not gone up accordingly," said Liana Fox, an analyst at the policy institute. ''People have to work more and have multiple jobs to maintain the same standard of living they would have had 20 years ago."

The inaction at the federal level has prompted a flurry of activity in various states. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal level, up from five in 1997, when the federal wage was set at $5.15. That list includes Massachusetts, where the minimum wage is $6.75 an hour.

Last year, both minimum wage increases on state ballots won overwhelmingly. Voters in Florida and Nevada -- two states that went narrowly for Bush -- overwhelmingly supported a higher minimum wage, giving ballot measures 71 percent support in Florida and 68 percent in Nevada. (The Nevada initiative must be approved again in 2006 before it can take effect.)

Democrats say they hope to replicate Republicans' success in 2004, when ballot initiatives banning gay marriage passed in all 11 states they were offered. The initiatives were credited with boosting GOP turnout in those states.

The minimum wage can have a similar cross-country resonance, particularly after Hurricane Katrina exposed the dire poverty that exists in parts of the nation, said the Rev. Paul Sherry, the Cleveland-based coordinator of ''Let Justice Roll" and a former president of the United Church of Christ. Sherry said his group is considering broadening its efforts to launch state legislative campaigns for a higher minimum wage in states including New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

''It cuts across all kinds of ideological lines," Sherry said. ''People on the conservative side of the political sphere, as well as the liberal, see the need for a decent wage for people."

Some Republicans and business groups oppose a higher minimum wage because they fear it could hurt small businesses. But some Republican lawmakers nonetheless appear reticent to oppose minimum-wage increases, since they fear Democrats could use such votes to attack them as antiworker.

Both times Kennedy offered minimum-wage increases in the Senate this year, he was narrowly defeated by Republicans. But in both instances, most Republicans voted for their own versions of a minimum-wage increase, tied to other provisions opposed by labor unions.

The votes meant that more than 80 senators twice voted this year for a higher minimum wage, but the year will end with the wage still at $5.15 an hour. Kennedy is vowing to force more votes on the issue next year.

''The support for this is off the charts," he said. ''This really is a defining kind of issue."-from the Boston Globe story today. WWJD? Rick Klein, who wrote this article, followed a bunch of us Seattle-ites around as we door-belled for Howard Dean in Des Moines in January, 2004.

No comments: