The members of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO are endorsing longtime incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter over Rep. Joe Sestak in that state’s contested May 18 Democratic primary election, despite the fact that Specter opposes one of the labor union’s biggest legislative priorities.
“In our opinion Senator Arlen Specter is the strongest advocate and supporter for good jobs, fair trade policies, workers’ rights and quality affordable healthcare for all. He is a proven leader who has stood with working families when the chips are down, especially his key role in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment [Act] of 2009 which has protected jobs, helped unemployed workers, and prevented this nation from sinking into another great depression,” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George says.
Specter was one of just three GOP senators early in 2009 who helped push the $787 billion economic stimulus program known as the Recovery Act over the legislative finish line and onto the desk of President Obama, newly inaugurated at the time.
This year is the first election in which Specter is running as a Democrat. First elected in 1980, he was a Republican senator April 2009 when he switched parties. He did so because polling indicated he would lose to his then-opponent in the Republican primary, former Rep. Pat Toomey. Toomey came within 2 percent of unseating Specter in the GOP primary in 2004.
Although Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other top Democrats vowed to support Specter after he came out as a Democrat, Sestak announced a primary bid to unseat the five-term lawmaker. First elected in 2006 and now in his second term, Sestak served as an admiral in the U.S. Navy before entering Congress. Sestak, too, has been able to claim some organized labor support on his side, including United Food and Commercial Workers locals.
The winner of the Democratic primary in November will likely face Toomey, who has remained in GOP contention and is seen as the likely Republican nominee at this point.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO notes that it has endorsed Specter twice before, in the 1998 and 2004 general elections. Its support now could be significant in beating back Sestak’s challenge, as the union claims more than 900,000 members.
“We will conduct an energetic and aggressive education and mobilization campaign of union families throughout Pennsylvania in support of Senator Specter’s nomination by voters on the Democratic ballot. Our principle obligation will be in helping share his record and message of support for all of Pennsylvania’s workers,” Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer says.
The union says an endorsement requires a two-thirds majority of the State Labor Federation’s Executive Council.
The union, however, endorsed Specter despite a disagreement over a piece of legislation it has considered critical.
Specter reversed earlier support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and came out against the legislation. The bill would make it easier for unions to organize workers, and has been strenuously opposed by business interests. Specter had been a rare Republican in support of the legislation before coming out against it. Specter maintained his new stance against EFCA even after his Democratic conversion.
The Keystone State AFL-CIO’s statement announcing its endorsement of Specter made no mention of EFCA, even though it its leader, Bill George, urged Specter to support the bill. George pledged at the time that the union would work to re-elect the then-Republican over any Democrat if Specter was willing to vote for EFCA, also known as “card-check.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.