Rose Ann DeMoro: Labor Leader & Political Player

First she fought off hospital cutbacks. Now she’s aiming to clean up finance. Next up: overhauling your healthcare. Meet Rose Ann DeMoro — the most influential woman you’ve never heard of.

By Karen Breslau

Nurses for Campaign Finance ReformIt’s a blistering late spring afternoon in Sacramento, and Rose Ann DeMoro bustles around, making sure everyone has bottled water, sunscreen, and a protest sign. Satisfied that her troops are ready, DeMoro gives the signal and some 600 women and a handful of men in cranberry-colored tunics chanting "We are the nurses, mighty, mighty nurses" begin their assault on the state capitol. Their mission: to promote a ballot measure that will radically restrict the ability of corporations and rich individuals to contribute to political candidates in California. The target of their rage, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is far away, campaigning for reelection on this day, but that doesn’t deter the battalion of nurses now marching to the lusty cadence of "Hey, hey, ho, ho/Dirty cash has got to go!" As the protesters enter the manicured grounds of the capitol, DeMoro is momentarily distracted by a lush rose garden. California’s most feared labor leader cradles one of the huge blossoms in her hand and inhales deeply. "Aren’t they beautiful?" she asks, turning to admire both the flowers and her approaching forces.Fighting for Comprehensive HealthcareIt’s hard to imagine Jimmy Hoffa stopping to smell the roses — or, for that matter, out there sweating with the rank and file — but then, DeMoro isn’t your uncle’s hard-muscle union boss either. For the past 13 years, she has run the California Nurses Association, a scrappy, nearly all-female, 70,000-member union that neutralizes its opponents with street theater and media manipulation rather than concrete footwear. Under DeMoro’s leadership, the CNA has tripled in size, emerging as a major political player in California. Now it’s taking its influence national, organizing RNs in 40 states and pushing for legislation to make federally funded healthcare available to every American. DeMoro and her nurses want a plan "more comprehensive" than the much-maligned overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system that Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed in 1994."Nurses are smart; they make the right decisions for humanity," DeMoro says. "To have caring people driving the agenda is a good thing."Target of Healthcare Industry & UnionsDeMoro’s unsubtle ambition has made her a target not only of the healthcare industry she battles at every turn, but also of rivals within the labor movement, who have lost members and clout in recent years to the CNA. "This is a union that has a pulse," says Ralph Nader, a close ally. "Rose Ann and the nurses have resurrected what a union should be all about, which is fighting for consumers, not just for your own interests."Teaching Governor Schwarzenegger a LessonNo one has learned a more painful lesson about tangling with DeMoro than California’s present governor. Until he picked a public fight with DeMoro and her nurses, the conventional wisdom was that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s woman trouble came in the form of groped stuntwomen and tabloid love children. But it was DeMoro — an earthy, 57-year-old, Teamster-trained, water-skiing grandmother — who stole the show in a battle with Schwarzenegger over nurse-to-patient staffing ratios in 2005. When he tried to block a state regulation requiring one nurse for every five hospital patients, DeMoro and her nurses launched a relentless guerrilla campaign. The public relations debacle cost the once popular "governator" 30 points in the polls and still fuels union support for his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, in this fall’s election. To counter Schwarzenegger’s star power, DeMoro even put together her own Hollywood A-list, led by Warren Beatty, who helped her torment Arnold last year and who will stump for her campaign finance initiative."The best theater, whether it’s on the street or in the movies, is when authenticity prevails," Beatty told me when I asked how a barely famous middle-aged woman had managed — at least for a time — to upstage Schwarzenegger. "Rose Ann is authentic. Nurses are authentic. People understand that."DeMoro’s office at CNA headquarters in downtown Oakland is a shrine to impudence. A small purple sign, "Well-behaved women rarely make history," is draped over the thermostat. On her wall is a Rebel Girl poster, featuring turn-of-the-century ladies garment workers marching under a red banner.

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