SUNDAY PROFILE: Rose Ann DeMoro
Rose Ann DeMoro, a former supermarket cashier from the suburbs of St. Louis who has risen to become one of America’s most powerful labor leaders, recalls that her tough but saintly mother had two maxims.
One: "Keep reaching."
Two: "If someone hits you, and you don’t hit ’em back, you’re going to get it when you get home."
DeMoro, executive director of the 86,000-member California Nurses Association and the 155,000-member National Nurses United, says she has faithfully lived by the first – and never had to worry much about the second.
"I was born like this," said DeMoro, 61, whose union is the nation’s largest and fastest-growing labor organization of registered nurses. "I was always into the fight – whatever the fight was."
This year, she’s revved up over California’s statewide elections, with her army of scrubs-wearing nurses taking on Meg Whitman, the billionaire Republican candidate for governor. Their argument: Whitman, who has called for laying off 40,000 state workers, overhauling pensions and trimming $15 billion from state spending, has "declared war on working people" in her quest for the state’s top executive spot.
With DeMoro at the helm, the union has become a political force in the state and beyond.
Endorsed Jerry Brown
The nurses union has endorsed Democrat Jerry Brown for governor, backing him with eye-popping political and satirical theater that includes sending a "Queen Meg" character, with crown and regal entourage, to trill slogans "Rich enough to
rule" and dog Whitman at her events.
The GOP candidate’s team has responded aggressively, publicly asking for DeMoro’s union mailing list to speak "directly" to nurses, creating a Web site truthfornurses.com and even sending out mailers to nurses that target DeMoro and her leadership.
"The way Rose Ann DeMoro spends your union dues will make you sick," says the headline on a mailer the Whitman campaign sent to nurses. It charges that DeMoro is "a political operative who has turned the CNA into an operating arm of the Democratic party."
DeMoro and California Nurses Association members have issued their response: They’ll gather in protest Wednesday in Atherton, the tony community where Whitman lives, to take their case to her doorstep.
"The problem is that Meg Whitman, coming from where she came from, sees people as commodities," said DeMoro, whose office in the union’s Oakland headquarters is filled with memorabilia from her decades of labor organizing.
The Republican’s call to roll back defined benefit pension plans and her attacks on state workers as expendable "bureaucrats" suggests, DeMoro said, that instead of people, Whitman "sees profits and losses. … It’s the most cynical of
DeMoro’s passion and the force with which she leads her troops has won her loyal admirers, such as consumer advocate Ralph Nader and activist-actor Warren Beatty, as well as some powerful opponents.
The weekly news magazine Modern Healthcare named DeMoro one of the "25 most powerful women in healthcare" while More.com, an online magazine for women older than 40, deemed her "one of the most influential women you never heard of."
In 2007, MSN listed her as No. 5 on the list of the nation’s "10 most influential women" – with then-eBay CEO Whitman right behind her at No. 6.
"What I love about what I do is we are building power for working women and patients," DeMoro said. "I’ve had women come up to me and say, ‘I’ve waited my whole life for this.’ "
When she’s not leading the charge with them, DeMoro has found ways to decompress. A lifelong fan of rock star Bruce Springsteen, she was thrilled to meet "The Boss" backstage at a benefit. She took up water-skiing a few years back and has become hooked on the thrill.
She also built a cactus labyrinth in her garden in Napa near Lake Berryessa, where she walks to think and reflect away from the whirlwind of political activity.
"What I respect most about Rose Ann is that she’ll stop at nothing to fight for nurses and for a better health care system in this country, no matter who gets in the way," said documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who has worked with and supported DeMoro’s troops for more than a decade.
She helped him produce "Sicko," his documentary expose of the health care industry.
Moore likens her to "a mother bear protecting her cubs from attack," saying "she’ll fight anybody – insurance companies, HMOs, Republicans, Democrats." And he warned: "If you try and bully nurses and patients, with Rose Ann DeMoro you’ve picked a fight with the Mommy Bear."
But Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds has done just that. He said the nurses union under DeMoro’s leadership has spent nearly $2 million to boost Brown and has put its backing exclusively behind Democratic candidates with efforts such as the
$50,000 "Queen Meg" campaign bus to slam Whitman.
Bounds dismissed DeMoro as "the figurehead boss of a radical union leadership" who has never been a nurse and said that Democrats have complained of her "bloated" salary, her husband Don DeMoro’s employment in the union ranks – and her clout.
DeMoro has unfairly targeted the positions of Whitman, Bounds said, adding that Whitman has great respect for the work of women in health care – especially because her husband is a Stanford neurosurgeon.
Bounds said of DeMoro: "If her job is to mislead and distort the views of her hardworking, rank-and-file membership, she’s worth every dime of the $300,000 salary they pay her."
DeMoro said her salary is approved by a 35-member union board of RNs and that she’s never asked for a raise. She said Whitman’s attacks over her pay are those of "a bored billionaire who’s appalled that working women should actually make
"Imagine that a woman with $1.3 billion would talk about anyone else’s pay," DeMoro said, laughing. "My salary is a rounding error for her interest."
DeMoro, dubbed "Mother Teresa with brass knuckles" by one supporter, said she "never, ever" dreamed of being a labor leader when she was a women’s studies major at UC Santa Barbara.
The working-class daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian father, DeMoro went to work at 16 and eventually married her high school sweetheart, who works with her as an organizer for the union. As a young mother with two kids, DeMoro got a job as a supermarket checker in St. Louis and became an organizer of those ranks.
She later moved to California to represent the Western Conference of Teamsters. Working in Hollywood to organize drivers, she quickly rose to become the union’s first female division chief.
In 1986, the fledgling California Nurses Association hired DeMoro to advocate for nurses, a group made up largely of women whom DeMoro insists have historically been among the nation’s most underappreciated and exploited workers.
DeMoro won landmark improvements in nurse-patient ratios in the state and has waged a campaign for universal health care, better working conditions, pensions and health care benefits for her troops. She has increased her union’s membership by 400 percent in almost 15 years.
Now her work has expanded to other states such as Texas, where National Nurses United has signed up thousands of workers on the front lines of a union-organizing effort against health care corporations, administrators, insurers and HMOs, she says.
Those who have worked with her say that she is always seeking new ways to get out her message.
Chris Lehane, the Democratic strategist behind Level the Playing Field 2010, the independent expenditure group backing Brown with financial help from the nurses union, said DeMoro’s political fearlessness is precisely what makes her union a
force to be reckoned with.
"She has taken labor back to what made labor a great and powerful entity," he said. "She stands up for social justice issues – not just to the economic bottom line of her members but issues her members care about."
Those have included sending nurses to Haiti for life-saving care after the devastating earthquake there in January or standing up on campaign finance reform issues, he said.
Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, warned that DeMoro "has no fear. She is a warrior. … You combine those qualities – knowing how to fight, being unafraid and uncompromising – and you have a unique individual in American politics."
Someone who learned that lesson, Rosenfield said, was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became a target of nurses’ protests in 2005 when he attempted to roll back nurse-patient ratios in the state.
Governor backs down
Dismissing DeMoro’s union members as "special interests," Schwarzenegger said he aimed to "kick their butts" but backed down after DeMoro and her union members tirelessly dogged his campaign events in protest.
"When everybody in the state was trying to suck up to Arnold and every elected official’s only wish was to be photographed beside him, DeMoro took him on," Rosenfield said.
He predicted that Whitman’s move to target DeMoro will be the candidate’s "Bay of Pigs," a reference to the failed CIA-backed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government in 1961.
DeMoro acknowledged that being on the front lines of union activity today requires stamina, collaboration – and an especially tough skin. On that front, she said, she keeps in mind one more bit of her late Irish mother’s sage advice.
"Don’t worry when they’re talking about you," DeMoro recalls her saying. "Worry when they stop."