When you think of a Washington insider, someone like Andy Stern is the last person who comes to mind. Stern is president of the nation’s fastest-growing union—the 2.2-million member Service Employees International Union—and while he’s a far cry from the cigar-chomping leaders who became icons of labor power during the heyday of the union movement, neither is he a brash, tassel-loafered habitué of DC power venues such as the Palm or Charlie Palmer Steak. Wearing a dark-blue blazer, khaki trousers, and an open dress shirt, the 59-year-old Stern looks like a college professor holding office hours. It’s hard to picture him working crowds into frenzies at strikes and union rallies—let alone locking horns with Rahm Emanuel or Peter Orszag.
But Stern is very much in the thick of power politics. Perhaps more than any other influence broker in Washington, he has thrown the fortunes of his constituency in with the effort to revamp the nation’s health-care system. All sorts of unlikely people are talking with, and listening to, Andy Stern—from traditional foes at the Business Roundtable to GOP senators such as Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi to President Obama himself.
As the storm around health care built to its highest pitch last fall, the Obama White House made good on one of its pledges, to enhance executive-branch transparency by releasing its visitors’ logs to the public. Stern topped the list, with 22 visits to the White House—seven with the President—over the administration’s first six months. Other leading visitors included former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta—who oversaw the Obama cabinet transition—and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, both confirmed health-policy wonks.
In the charged atmosphere of the health-care debate, commentators on the right seized on Stern’s ready access to the Oval Office—and his left-of-center political profile—as proof that SEIU, which chipped in more than $60 million to the Obama campaign’s war chest, is all but dictating policy at an ultraliberal White House. “Obama and Stern are working together to make America a more liberal place,” warned the National Review’s Stephen Spruiell.
Americans for Tax Reform—the advocacy group chaired by conservative activist Grover Norquist—wrote to DC’s US Attorney, Channing Phillips, to demand an investigation of Stern as an unregistered lobbyist. (A subsequent Senate inquiry found that Stern hadn’t trespassed any lobbying law or protocols.) Conservative radio talker Glenn Beck seized on the visitors’ logs to say Stern was the person “really controlling our country.”
It helped fan the conspiratorial flames that one SEIU local, Chicago’s 880 chapter, had been originally organized by activists with ACORN—the community-organizing group routinely charged with voter fraud and worse by the right—and that former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, in the throes of his effort to sell off Obama’s Senate seat, proposed that he be rewarded with a sinecure on the board of Change to Win, Stern’s insurgent labor federation.
Stern seems an unlikely person to be in the center of any storm. His tousled crown of thinning gray hair and half-quizzical squint make him look like the nerdier older brother of talk-show host Bill Maher. Moving about his office on the eighth floor of SEIU’s modern Dupont Circle headquarters, Stern carries himself more like a laid-back tech executive than a union boss. He might bark out a data point or two when he gets worked up, but it’s usually about a procedural setback in Senate health-care negotiations, not the gruff ultimatums you’d have heard from earlier generations of labor leaders.
Stern is well aware of the differences, in both style and leadership. “You know, it’s a different world,” he says of the labor movement’s diminished sway in the capital’s powerbrokering game. “No one’s saying, ‘What does Andy think?’ as they used to say, ‘What does Sidney think?’ ” Stern points out, referring to the legendary clout of labor leader Sidney Hillman during the New Deal. “We should never forget that the only reason we’re listened to is because of our members. We’re not such brilliant or handsome people on our own.”
Stern was the opposite of a quick study in throwing one’s weight around when he first came to Washington. “Until I became president of the union, I did not do anything related to electoral politics,” he says. “My claim to fame was that I never wore a tie—something I was told I had to start doing once I went [without one] to see Secretary Robert Reich,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor through 1997. “That’s about how far I was from traditional DC.”
Penetrating the inner sanctum of the White House didn’t sharpen his sense of insiderness: “My first official Washington event was at one of Bill Clinton’s famous coffees. It was the night before his reelection. I thought I was really just going for coffee. I was saying that to someone who worked there—“Gee, it’s so nice that the President wants to have me over for coffee and hear what I think!”—and they told me, no, it was what they called a ‘donors’ event.”
Even now, when he’s held forth as a symbol of Washington clout, Stern keeps an unassuming profile. He lives not far from the Georgetown power eatery Cafe Milano but prefers to schlep much farther up Wisconsin Avenue to the kitschy ’50s-era seafood joint the Dancing Crab. Even there, he grumbles that “they’ve gone a little upscale. But yes, give me a pitcher of beer and a bunch of crabs and sports on the TV and I’m happy.”
Other fixtures of the DC political scene sometimes affect a fondness for more down-market tastes as a pseudo-populist sort of brand management, but Stern seems to have the opposite problem: convincing people he really belongs in Washington. Casting about for a DC-appropriate lifestyle pursuit, he volunteers that “I drive a convertible.” This prompts his SEIU media handler, Michelle Ringuette, to interject that “it’s an American-made convertible”—a Chrysler Sebring.