Saturday, November 20, 2004

Page 3 of 5 Ground War (

Ground War ( "Page 3 of 5
Ground War

Across the street, a woman in tight stretch pants and a halter top puts down her grocery bags and makes a call from a pay phone. The conversation does not go well. Cursing loudly, she takes the receiver and starts hammering it, hard, over and over, against the phone.

The canvass team stops to watch. "Another dissatisfied constituent," says Lindenfeld. "Who's gonna go sign her up?" Everybody laughs, including Rosenthal, who then adds, firmly, "We don't leave anybody behind."

At age 51, with 30 years in organizing, and as a former deputy political director for the Democratic National Committee, Rosenthal is always teaching the basics. Put your foot between the jamb and the screen door before it gets slammed shut. Rattle the fence before opening the gate. Why? To make sure there's no nasty dog. "I got that advice from the letter carriers' union, long ago," he says.

"He's a great listener, and he steals things with no conscience," says his longtime friend Andy Stern, president of SEIU, which has donated money and bodies to the program. "He'll hone in on some . . . phone bank person discussing how many seconds you can talk on the phone before the person gets bored. And Steve will sit there fascinated and ask what would happen if you had to do it in four seconds." Rosenthal keeps index cards in his shirt pocket -- he rarely wears a suit -- and he jots on them throughout the day. "Then he organizes them at night," says Stern. "He's like a sponge."

But: "He's not very patient with people who think they know everything and want to tell him what to do. It is not his best skill to tolerate people who may not be very accomplished."

A Divided Partnership

Because of Rosenthal's success mobilizing union voters while at the AFL-CIO, labor leaders agreed to fund a new initiative, Partnership for America's Families, that he would direct, using $20 million to mobilize voters. But last summer, within a few months of its formation, the new effort was dissolving in a spasm of acrimony between two powerful union bosses, Stern and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The partnership's entire board abruptly resigned. McEntee charged that Rosenthal "failed to win the support of key labor unions and leaders and other constituency organizations."

Then a prominent black union leader attacked Rosenthal, saying his leadership amounted to "paternalism."

"We have told Mr. Rosenthal and his organization where he could go and what he could do," AFSCME Treasurer Bill Lucy said in a press release. The issue "is about who will decide how the black community will be involved in its own politics." Oscar Sanchez, then head of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, chimed in that Rosenthal, as the AFL-CIO political director, "was not sympathetic to the causes of the minority community."

"This is one of the criticisms that will haunt him for life," says Brazile, who is black. She jumped to Rosenthal's defense, taking him to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rosenthal is no racist, she says.

"He was trying to transition from 'old school' to 'new school,' " she says, "and he bumped heads" by making clear to some of the Democrats' traditional constituency groups that their time-honored methods were not getting enough voters to the booths.

"Don't expect to demand a seat at the table," she adds. "You have to earn it with Steve."

"People perceived that his demands were inappropriate," says Gina Glantz, who ran Bill Bradley's presidential campaign and has known Rosenthal since working with him on the Walter Mondale campaign. She rejects that argument. "If [he thinks] you're not getting the job done, it doesn't make any difference what color you are or what color your organization is. He is going to measure your performance."

Asked about this episode, Rosenthal says, "It's history. It was an ugly period. I have spent my adult life working to win power for the powerless, and I let my record speak for myself."

"He can be prickly," says Don Kaniewski, political director of the Laborers' International Union. "He can be disagreeable. I have not always felt that he was the most open and forthcoming person on everything I wanted to know about. That didn't prevent me from respecting the work he was doing. And by every measure he has been successful. And that is how he would like to be judged: Did I win, not who did I piss off?" "


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