Pa. Dems give Specter mixed welcome

May 15, 2009 10:39:34 AM PDT
Some Democrats who opened their arms to party switcher Sen. Arlen Specter have softened the embrace. Progressive grassroots activists this week posted a fundraising Web link to draft Rep. Joe Sestak to challenge Specter in next year's Pennsylvania Democratic primary.

And labor leaders in the state repeatedly have warned that a decision on whether they endorse Spector depends on whether he supports a bill making it easier for unions to organize.

At a recent Jefferson Jackson Democratic dinner in Pittsburgh sponsored by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, Chairman Jim Burn said the mood about Specter's switch was "cold to lukewarm at best."

"We need to see if he's going to be a Democrat," Burn said.

Specter's decision to switch was widely praised by Democrats because it reenforced the Republican Party's struggles and moved Democrats a step closer to getting a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But now many of the party faithful in Pennsylvania are wondering, "Is he Democrat enough?"

Specter, 79, is Pennsylvania's longest serving senator. Proudly independent, he proclaimed when he made the party switch late last month that he wasn't going to be an automatic vote for Democrats. He said a reason he was switching was because he was likely to lose the Republican primary to former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey.

He was quickly endorsed by President Barack Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That earned him credibility but has caused some resentment that the party establishment would pick a nominee.

After making the switch, Specter quickly angered Senate Democrats by voting against a Democrat-backed budget bill. He also indicated he wasn't changing his positions on the Employee Free Choice Act - a bill making it easier for workers to organize - and expressed opposition to a government option on health care overhaul. Soon after, Senate Democrats voted to take away his seniority.

Since then, Specter's left the door open to compromise. He's said he's open to a government health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers to cover middle-class Americans. And on Thursday, he said he is meeting with labor leaders and fellow senators on the labor organizing bill, and the prospects are good that a compromise can be reached.

"I'm responding on the issues," Specter said in an interview.

He said he's been working with State Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney to reach out to party leaders across the state and will continue to do so. He said Democrats are grateful for his critical vote in favor of $787 economic stimulus package, and he has a long history of working with labor.

"So far, the receptions have been uniformly excellent," Specter said.

Specter had a 81 percent approval rating among Pennsylvania Democrats in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted after he made the switch.

But Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a University of Pennsylvania law student who runs the Young Philly Politics political blog, said with Specter's initial positions after the switch, he "stuck his stick in many of the Democrats' eyes."

The senator was endearing when he was a Republican challenging his party, but not so much when the tables were turned, Urevick-Ackelsberg said. He said the Democratic primary would be a good opportunity for Specter to prove his worth as a Democrat, and he's advocated for a run by Sestak.

"Being a Democrat means something. I want to hear why he switched," Urevick-Ackelsberg said. "It couldn't be just because he was going to lose to Pat Toomey. That's not good enough for me."

In Pennsylvania, a dramatic shift in the Democrats' favor has taken place since 2006, with the party gaining control of the two Senate seats and a majority among the House delegation. During last year's presidential election, Democrats widened the party's registration majority over Republican to more than 1 million voters, and Obama handily won the state.

Given that success, expectations are high for the candidate selected as the party's nominee, said Bill George, president of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania, which is home to 847,000 union members. Just any Democrat will not do, he said.

"Democrats in this state have become moderate left, not just moderate any more, so we have a party that expects performance," George said.

Jerry Green, president of a Steelworkers union local in Bethlehem, said Specter will have an uphill climb to earn the support of organized labor.

"I'm actually hoping he has an opponent in the primary," Green said. "It's not just going to be a free ride."

In interviews with The Associated Press, some Pennsylvania Democrats said they will take a wait-and-see attitude. Jean Enterberg, 68, a Democrat from Allentown who has voted for Specter in the past, was shocked by Specter's decision to switch parties.

"I have to find out what's on his mind before I make a judgment as to whether I'll vote for him," Enterberg said.

Rep. Bob Brady, the chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said Specter was warmly received Monday night at a party function. Many in the party are thankful for the work Specter has done for Pennsylvania over the years - specifically the stimulus vote, he said.

Brady, a union carpenter, said he's hopeful Specter will come to labor's side on the union organizing bill.

"It would be helpful for him and for all of us," Brady said.

In Allegheny County, Burn said people are eager to hear what he has to say. Specter will be in Pittsburgh on June 5 for the Democrats' state committee meeting.

"It's ironic that Senator Specter left the Republican Party in part to avoid a tough primary battle, with the possibility that he might find himself in one on this side of the aisle as well," Burn said.

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Hefling reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.

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