Democrats Look to New Rules for 2008 Primaries

Alexis Herman, former Labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, speaks with Ed Gordon about efforts by Democrats to diversify the primary process for the presidential race of 2008. Herman co-chairs the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya in for Ed Gordon:

In the political world, the 2008 presidential election is almost upon us. Now, some influential Democrats are pushing for what they call diversity in the early voting process. Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white states, have dominated the early democratic primaries and caucuses. But just a week ago, the Democratic Party's Rules in Bylaws Committee voted to give as many as four states sought after early voting days.

NPR's Ed Gordon spoke to former U.S. labor secretary Alexis Herman, who co-chairs the panel.

Ms. ALEXIS HERMAN (Former U.S. Labor Secretary): We want to make sure that that as we go into the 2008 presidential season that we're going to have broader representation in terms of racial diversity, ethnic diversity, regional diversity and quite frankly, economic diversity. We need to talk about what's going on with the manufacturing community, as an example.

And in order to do that you need to have other states, in addition to Iowa and New Hampshire, as a front end of the process engaging and testing our presidential candidates through rigorous retail politics.

ED GORDON reporting:

Forgive the interruption, Alexis, but we should note that early on when you talk about New Hampshire and Iowa, and New Hampshire being 96 percent white, Iowa 93 almost 94 percent white, these can often knock candidates out very early who may be more germane in terms of their thought to the African American community?

Ms. HERMAN: You're very right in saying that, Ed. The fact of the matter is all of the media attention, really all of the early resources, the money that's spent, it is really spent in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and they're not states that really have a large representation, as you've pointed out, of African Americans. So many of the issues that are certainly germane to our community oftentimes don't get raised in those early contests.

GORDON: Alexis, you've been very involved over the years in presidential politics, being with President Clinton, your years in dealing with Ron Brown as he moved and played king maker for so many Democrats. Talk to me about how crucial this election is for Democrats in your mind?

Ms. HERMAN: This is a very crucial election. For one reason, we have to recognize that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans for the first time in over 50 years have a presumptive nominee. That means that there's no sitting Vice President that's going to run like Dick Cheney in 2008. So it's wide open on the Republican side. And obviously, the Democrats haven't been in power. So we don't have a presumptive nominee like a sitting vice president the way Al Gore was, to pick up the party mantle.

You haven't had this kind of an environment, Ed, literally since Harry Truman ran for president. That was over 50 years ago. So it's really wide open. And we've got really big issues at stake. We always talk about the Supreme Court and the power to appoint judges, but it's really more than that. We're in a war in Iraq that the American people are dissatisfied with. We've got to make serious decisions about reinvesting here at home in terms of what we have to do to create jobs and to make sure that our court systems are going to continue to be responsive to us.

This landscape is changing before our very eyes. And if we aren't able to win this election in 2008, I believe that many of the issues that we care about as a people will be lost at least for the next generation.

GORDON: One of the things that often goes by people are midterm elections. And as important as winning the White House, some see winning the Congress perhaps even more so, or when we're looking at midterms coming up, what do you tell African Americans who have, quite frankly, been very disengaged in midterm elections over the last few years?

Ms. HERMAN: Well, first of all, you mentioned the name of Ron Brown, my good friend and someone that was close to you. Ron always pointed out that the race to the White House really starts the day after you elect the president. And for us, these midterm elections are just as crucial, they are just as important as we move towards the presidential primary; and in many ways, given what is going on with Congress today in the United States and the fact that we are spending so much money on this war; we're not spending money on student loans and what we have to do to help our kid get an education; we have the Voting Rights Acts that is up for extension in this Congress; this is the Congress that will decide whether or not we're going to extend the Voting Rights Act.

The fact that we're still talking about it, first of all, should give us all great concern. But this election in 2006 will put in place the Congress of the United States that's going to decide that issue before we elect a president in 2008. So we have a lot of issues, Ed, coming up that will be on the ballot with House and Senate elections this year. And I know our community is disenfranchised. I know that when it comes to particularly these midterm elections, we don't turn out in the numbers that we need to. But we've got to realize that the race to the White House doesn't just start with this election. There are too many issues that are at stake in 2006, not the least of which is the Voting Rights Act.

GORDON: You come with a tremendous resume, Alexis Herman. And one of the things that you made history with is your appointment under President Clinton as labor secretary. I wanted to get your thought of what you see across the labor market today. We hear so much from this White House about how the economy is booming, but that juxtaposed with the unemployment that we see coming from the auto industry and pensions being frozen all across this country, I'm curious how you see the landscape.

Ms. HERMAN: First of all, people say this economy is an economy that's continuing to create jobs. Well, guess what, yes, this economy is creating jobs. But the fact of the matter is it's not creating enough jobs to take care of the large numbers of people who are out of work. And the jobs that we are creating, and we cannot forget this, are paying really a third less than the jobs that we are losing. So even if you're creating jobs, even if you're lucky enough to have a job, nine times out of 10, you're making on average $9.00 less than what you were making in the other job that you had.

So these are not jobs that are allowing families, workers to meet basic and ordinary needs. That's why credit card debt is going up; that's why you've got more bankruptcies; that's why you've got more homes that are being foreclosed on, because people are working longer and harder, but they're not getting paid in the same way for the work that they do.

So that's a big issue. And of course, what you've just pointed out, Ed, it's the whole question of benefits today. It's not just the healthcare costs that are rising, and companies are cutting back. We're finding, increasingly, as we saw in the automotive issue--this is one of the big reasons why the workers are losing their jobs there. It's also pension benefits. We're losing our pension system, not just private pensions with employers, but because of the high deficits that are being created, now, we also know that social security is at risk. So you work a lifetime to earn your pension, and increasingly, we have to be concerned as to whether or not it's going to be there at the end of the day for you.

GORDON: And we know, unfortunately, Alexis Herman, that African Americans are always on the bottom rung of this ladder. One of the things that I know you were involved with, is the National Unity Black People's Convention, which took place in Gary, Indiana 34 years after the conference that brought together--and it was the preeminent African-American conference of its day--Black Leadership. You talked about policies for empowerment and new economic order and blacks being involved in that. Share a bit of that with us.

Ms. HERMAN: Well, when you look at what is going on today, when we take just the tension question, and you said blacks are at the bottom end of the ladder. We really are.

There are three things, for instance, that make up your retirement years: private savings, private employer benefits, and social security. We know that more than 70 percent of African-Americans are completely dependent on social security. We don't have private savings, and we increasingly don't have private pensions for employers. But you can go through every economic index and find that we are at the bottom of the ladder.

And again, when you look at the unemployment rate, we are the only group that we're back now in double-digit unemployment. So take any aspect of our economy today and there's serious concerns for us African-Americans.

GORDON: Alexis Herman, before we let you go, I want to go full circle and bring you back to the 2008 Presidential campaign and ask you about a woman you know well, and that's Senator Hillary Clinton. You and Mrs. Clinton have been friends and colleagues for years. She, by most accounts, while you suggested no presumptive nominee on either party, but she, in many polls, is the frontrunner for Democrats.

How realistic do you believe it to be that not only Mrs. Clinton could win, but a woman could win in this day and time?

Ms. HERMAN: I think it's very realistic, and I think it is just terrific that we're at a point in time in our history as a nation, that we are finally able to talk about real women candidates who literally could win the nomination as president of the United States. We had a lot of conversation about that, of course, when on the Republican side people wanted to hope and wish that Colin Powell was going to run.

But I think the fact that we are able now, to say this isn't just pie-in-the-sky, these are real options, these are real issues, Hillary Clinton is clearly in the mix for the Democratic nomination, I think it's very good for the country.

GORDON: Well, Alexis Herman, you're one of those trailblazers that certainly made it possible for Mrs. Clinton and others to look to that office and make it real. So we greatly appreciate your time, and always good to talk to you.

Ms. HERMAN: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Alexis Herman served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. She now co-chairs the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee. The panel expects to report its final recommendations by early fall.

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