Home-State Record: Dick Gephardt

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(Host) As we continue our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates, we look at Congressman Richard Gephardt. As Matt Sepic, from public radio station KWMU in St. Louis reports, Gephardt’s record from alderman to majority leader is a matter of home-town pride. But his challenge has been to balance his leadership role with the needs of his district.

(Sepic) On a drizzly morning outside Gephardt’s Missouri headquarters in a St. Louis County strip mall, the driver of a chartered bus closes the luggage compartments. Several dozen volunteers tape campaign signs in the windows and settle in for a day’s drive to Iowa. It’s there where Gephardt is facing a crucial caucus battle with Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

On the bus is Rich King – a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. King hails Gephardt for his longtime support of labor unions.

(King) “He believes in the working man having the same advantage as everyone else in this country. If it weren’t for organized labor, we wouldn’t have the standard of living we have today.”

(Sepic) In campaign speeches, Gephardt often touts his blue collar roots: his father was a milk truck driver in the Teamsters Union and his mother a secretary. But the candidate’s opponents say he panders to organized labor.

For nearly 27 years, Gephardt has solidified union ties in his district with opposition to measures like the North American Free Trade Agreement and support of universal health care. At a St. Louis Ford dealership in 1997 he spoke out against giving President Bill Clinton fast track authority to broker foreign trade deals.

(Gephardt, from 1997 speech) “America stands for something more than simply making a lot of money. We cannot auction off our future or our values simply to make a quick buck.”

(Sepic) Gephardt has been consistent on labor issues, but critics say he’s flip-flopped on abortion, gun control and the environment. A younger Dick Gephardt once opposed legalized abortion and raising the federal minimum wage. But recently he voiced support for minimum wage increases and has been pro-choice since 1986.

Steven Smith teaches political science at Washington University in St. Louis. He says representing a part- urban, part-rural Middle American district over the course of a generation has made it tough for Gephardt to tackle divisive issues.

(Smith) “It’s a socially diverse group, ranging from devout Catholics, pitting them against women’s groups, environmental groups, student groups, the wine and cheese crowd of the Democratic Party. So his general strategy has simply been to keep the focus on the economic issues and de-emphasize the social issues.”

(Sepic) Smith says as Gephardt rose to national prominence – becoming House Majority Leader in 1989 – he moved to the left to align himself with Democrats in Congress, but drifted from some of his more conservative constituents. He gradually softened on gay rights, and now supports civil unions. But his daughter Chrissy, who’s a lesbian, says he should go further.

(Chrissy Gephardt) “We definitely disagree on gay marriage. I’ve talked to him about that at length and I definitely know he’s listening to me. He says that I’m making good points, and I think it’s just a matter of time before he comes around and changes his decision.”

(Sepic) Dick Gephardt did change his decision on involvement in the Persian Gulf. He opposed the 1991 war, but stood with President George W. Bush on the recent military action in Iraq. At a Democratic debate in September, however, Gephardt criticized Mr. Bush for not getting more international support.

(Gephardt, from September debate) “This president is a miserable failure. (Sound of crowd laughter, then applause.) He is a miserable failure.”

(Sepic) Washington University’s Steven Smith says Gephardt must go beyond sound bites and convince voters he’s more than a Capitol Hill insider.

(Smith) “The public, I think, sees Gephardt as one of the leaders of the past in the Democratic Party, and it’s his burden to show that in fact he’s full of fresh ideas and his expertise and experience is really a plus.”

(Sepic) Gephardt hopes his support for universal health care and pension plans will be the kind of ideas that resonate with voters across the country.

For the Home State Record Project, I’m Matt Sepic in St. Louis.

(Host) On Monday in our series on the Home State Records of the Democratic presidential candidates, we’ll hear how North Carolina Senator John Edwards built his career.

Read or listen to the Home-State Records of all nine candidates

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