MAMARONECK, N.Y. – Democrat John Edwards got a taste of low-wage life Wednesday, rising before dawn to help to dress, shave and deliver breakfast to elderly residents of a nursing home outside New York City.
His visit was part of the "Work a Day in My Shoes" program sponsored by the influential Service Employees International Union, where presidential candidates spend time with health care workers to understand the challenges of their jobs. Edwards was paired with certified nursing assistant Elaine Ellis, an 18-year employee of the Sarah Neuman Nursing Home who escorted him on her early morning rounds.
Ellis, a divorced mother who raised four children on her nursing assistant's salary, called Edwards "a very personable person" and praised his willingness to spend time on the job with her.
"I think all politicians should take a page from his book," she told reporters.
A union activist and Democrat, Ellis said she hadn't decided which presidential candidate to support. She said she made about $14 per hour at the nursing home.
Dressed in jeans and a blue work shirt, Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, helped awaken Irving Zywoto and tried to explain to the 83-year old resident who he was.
"Remember the last presidential election in 2004? Kerry and Edwards? I'm Edwards. I'm running for president this time," he said.
Later, Edwards donned rubber gloves to rub moisturizer on Zywoto's legs and gave him his morning shave.
The former North Carolina senator wheeled another resident, Toby Allan, to the cafeteria and greeted others as they ate breakfast. Many women residents gripped his hand and complimented his looks; others whispered condolences about his wife, Elizabeth, who was recently diagnosed with incurable breast cancer.
"He's very nice," said 92-year-old Lily Pagliari, a Democrat who said she is undecided in the presidential race. "It's great that he came and helped liven things up here."
With reporters, publicists and camera crews trailing Edwards' every move, his visit at times seemed more a photo opportunity than a work visit. But speaking to reporters later, Edwards insisted that such visits have real value.
"It's important for the president of the United States to understand how difficult these jobs are, and how important they are," he said. He also touted his proposed health care plan, which he said would help cover the cost of long-term care at nursing homes.
Edwards has said his health plan would cost between $90 and $120 billion and would be paid for by rolling back tax cuts for those making over $200,000 per year.
He has generally trailed rival Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in most national surveys, but is polling strongly in Iowa, site of the first voting contest next January.
With organized labor one of the most powerful influences in Democratic politics, several of the party's candidates have accepted SEIU's invitation, including Clinton, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. But Edwards, who has aggresively courted labor support, is the first actually to take part in a work visit.
Similar work visits were a favorite campaign approach by Democrat Bob Graham, the former Florida governor and senator who competed briefly for the presidential nomination in 2004.
Graham tried his hand at a range of jobs beginning in 1974, working as a chicken plucker, sheet metal worker and busboy, among other things. He completed over 400 work visits before retiring from politics in 2004.