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A Congressman's Defeat Spells Trouble for Business Democrats | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A Congressman's Defeat Spells Trouble for Business Democrats

U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, who broke with other industrial-state Democrats to back free trade measures such as NAFTA, suffered a stunning defeat in an Ohio's May 7 Democratic primary. And, despite the best efforts of Sawyer's old friends in the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council to try and explain away the eight-term incumbent's rejection at the hands of home-state voters, the message from Ohio was a blunt signal for Democrats who side with Wall Street against Main Street.

Trade issues have long been views by labor and environmental activists as the canary-in-the-coal mine measures of corporate dominance over Congress. Most, though not all, Republicans back the free-trade agenda pushed by major multinational corporations and Republican and Democratic presidents. Most Democrats oppose that agenda. Since the early 1990s, trade votes in the House of Representatives have tended to be close, however. That has meant that the margins of victory for the corporate trade agenda has often been delivered by a floating pool of Democrats -- including Sawyer -- who have been willing to vote with free-trade Republicans on key issues such as NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and normalization of trade relations with China. Most of the free-trade Democrats are associated with the New Democrat Coalition, a DLC-tied House group that was formed in 1997 with Sawyer as a charter member.

Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, says Sawyer's defeat must be read as very bad news for those free-trade Democrats.

"If all you do is hang around at think tanks in Washington, you might think that everyone loves free trade. But, when you get outside Washington, you start running into Americans who have seen factories closed and communities kicked in the teeth by the North American Free Trade Agreement and all these other trade bills," explains Woodall, one of the savviest followers of trade fights in Washington and around the country. "Tom Sawyer's defeat ought to be a wake-up call for Democrats who think they can get away with voting for a free-trade agenda that does not protect workers, farmers and the environment. Tom Sawyer found out on Tuesday that there are consequences."

Of course, there will still be Democrats who don't quite "get it." Even as Thursday's edition of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill-insider publication, carried a Page One headline reading "NAFTA Stance Hurt Sawyer," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., were cutting a deal to give President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreements that critics describe as "NAFTA on steroids."

But if some top Democrats were having trouble figuring out the politics of trade, Sawyer top aide was no longer suffering under any delusions. The congressman's chief of staff, Dan Lucas, said after his boss lost: "The big issue was NAFTA." And the big loser was the argument that, given a choice, Democrats from blue-collar districts will stick with members of Congress who vote the Wall Street line on trade issues. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Howard Wolfson delicately explained, "(In) some districts in this country a free trade position is not helpful."

Sawyer was not the first Democrat in recent years to discover those consequences. After voting for a previous version of Fast Track, California Rep. Matthew Martinez was defeated in a 2000 primary by labor-backed challenger Hilda Solis. And Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who voted for the current Fast Track proposal when it came before the House last December, lost a March Democratic primary for an open U.S. Senate seat after his opponent, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, said he would have opposed Fast Track.

But, by any measure, Sawyer's defeat is the most significant so far for a free-trade Democrat in the House.

Since his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sawyer had been held up by backers of free trade as living proof that it was safe for Democrats from industrial states to break with organized labor and vote for corporate-friendly trade legislation. Despite lots of griping over his NAFTA vote, Sawyer was reelected several times by voters in a district made up of Akron -- a city where he had served as mayor -- and white-collar Cleveland-area suburbs.

In the redistricting process following the 2000 Census, Sawyer's district lines were altered. He kept much of the Akron area but took in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley towns represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant. After his conviction on 10 felony counts including racketeering and bribery, Traficant decided to skip the Democratic primary and Sawyer was supposed to be safe. By far the biggest name in the race, Sawyer collected a campaign bankroll that drawfed those of his opponents. And he did not hesitate to spend that money freely on slick television commercials that filled the airwaves in the weeks before the primary.

Sawyer and his Democratic challengers agreed on most issues. But trade was the dividing line. And trade mattered -- especially in Youngstown and other hard-hit steel-mill communities up and down the Mahoning Valley. Though Sawyer had voted with labor on some trade issues -- including the December Fast Track test -- he is known in Ohio as the Democrat who backed NAFTA, and for unemployed steelworkers and their families NAFTA invokes the bitterest of memories.

"Sawyer's vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement killed him in the valley, observers agree. Even though Sawyer had a strong pro-labor voting record, that one vote was all that mattered," the Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper observed. "Mahoning Valley voters hate free trade, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement," echoed the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. ``That NAFTA vote (by Sawyer) added fuel to the fire," said William Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University.

The fire was stoked by several of Sawyer's lesser-known opponents, who strongly opposed NAFTA. But the line from the pundits held that, even if trade turned out to be an issue, the NAFTA foes would split the labor vote, allowing Sawyer to prevail with ease. As it turned out, one of the challengers, State Sen. Tim Ryan, broke from the pack by wrapping himself in the banner of the labor movement.

Though a number of national unions backed Sawyer because he looked like a winner, Mahoning Valley unions went with Ryan, a 28-year-old Democrat who had once worked for Traficant. And, unlike Democrats who collect campaign checks from labor and then quickly scramble away from their blue-collar backers, Ryan wore his hometown union support as a badge of honor. His homey television commercials featured the song "Swing, Swing, Swing" as the names of unions that had endorsed him flashed across the screen.

Ryan didn't put many commercials on TV, however. The young candidate was outspent 6-1 by Sawyer. And most of the money Ryan did spend went into the sort of grassroots, down-at-the-union-hall campaigning that is rarely seen in American politics these days. One of the Ryan campaigns biggest expenditures was for t-shirts for his supporters. ``He defies the modern campaign,'' Binning says of Ryan.

On election night, Ryan defied expectations. He won 41 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Sawyer. Another 20 percent of the vote went to State Rep.Anthony Latell, who like Ryan identified himself as a strong foe of NAFTA.

Ryan still faces a November contest that against a Republican legislator. In addition, Traficant is running as an independent, along with Warren Davis, a veteran United Auto Workers union official. By week's end, however, there was speculation that Traficant might be in a jail cell and Davis might be out of the race by November -- creating the prospect that Ryan could end up as an easy winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

No matter what happens, however, Tom Sawyer will be leaving Congress. With him should go the assumption that Democratic voters will always forgive and forget free-trade votes of Democratic members of Congress.

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