Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter spent most of his political career being tagged as organized labors favorite Republican, a superlative that is now paying big dividends in the party-switchers Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak.
When Specter defected from the GOP one year ago next month, he announced he would not be the automatic 60th vote on the Employee Free Choice Act the top legislative priority for unions.
But with 10 weeks to go until the May 18 primary, Specter doesnt appear to have lost any ground with his friends in the Keystone State labor community, even though Sestak boasts he was an original co-sponsor of the EFCA legislation.
The Senator was in some respects held to a higher standard among labor after April 28, said state Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, a Specter supporter. Its one thing to be a Republican who votes with you when it counts, its another thing to be a Democrat.
Truth be told, the fact that most unions are sticking by Specter isnt too surprising given that many labor groups, including the statewide AFL-CIO, supported Specter in his 2004 re-election race. But wooing union support in a Democratic primary is a whole different ballgame.
Yeah, it was easier, Specter said in a phone interview last week. They said, Weve supported you when you were a Republican, and that was a bridge we had to hurdle. And now that youre a Democrat, its easier.
There are several major labor endorsements still to come in the primary, including the state AFL-CIO, which will meet next month to endorse a candidate. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George said, however, that Specter appears to already have the two-thirds support necessary from the organization for an endorsement.
George added that the original EFCA bill is in the past, and Specter has won union support by working with his colleagues to create a compromise on the legislation, which national labor organizations are hoping will get a vote after health care reform is passed.
Its like water over the damn, George said. That first bills gone and consequently, its time to move forward. And Arlen Specter was very instrumental with other Senators getting an agreement.
Specter has already announced endorsements from other labor groups, both inside and outside the AFL-CIO, which, according to his campaign, translates to support from more than 380,000 union members. A campaign aide for Sestak, meanwhile, said he has been endorsed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and a couple local chapters of the United Steel Workers and the bricklayers and postal unions.
Sestak said that while Specter may have the lions share of labor endorsements, he remains confident that when voters go to the polls the cracks in that support will be evident.
While I respect organized labors leadership, it frankly has to do with working families, Sestak said. I know that Arlen Specter has made some deals with the labor leaders, but the rank and file will support me on Election Day.
There are several theories as to why Sestaks upstart campaign has never gotten off the ground.
Public polls have consistently shown Specter with a lead over Sestak, including a Research 2000 poll taken March 8-10 that had Specter ahead 51 percent to 32 percent.