Specter "proud to be a Democrat," he tells party conclave here

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With heavy mentions of FDR, JFK and Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter tried to reestablish his Democratic credentials this afternoon, in a speech Downtown to the state party's leadership.

"I'm again a Democrat and I'm pleased and proud to be a Democrat," said the five-term senator, who switched his party allegiance two months ago, under heavy criticism from Republicans for his vote in favor of Mr. Obama's economic stimulus package.

Mr. Specter talked about that vote and past stances that could win him friends in his new party, including raising the minimum wage, reforming health care and protecting abortion rights.

He promised to keep asserting his independence from party orthodoxy, but still said he'd do the political dirty work of supporting Democratic candidates for judgeships and the governor's seat in coming years.

The Philadelphia native acknowledged it was "an important speech" for him, so much so that he relied on teleprompters to make sure he got his precise message across to the 194 state Democratic Committee members convening for their annual meeting at the Westin Convention Center hotel.

After the stimulus vote, "The far right used me for target practice and they didn't like it when I wouldn't stand still. So I'm especially glad to stand here where I feel so comfortable," he said during a 17-minute speech.

Earlier, there was a lot of talk about jobs--not just union ones, but the one Mr. Specter is desperately trying to hold onto in the U.S. Senate.

Before his speech inside the hotel, Mr. Specter told a wary and vocal labor rally outside that he "is committed to finding an answer" on legislation making it easier to organize unions.

Mr. Specter, well known for his political survivor skills, plainly told the crowd of about 400 that he knew he could not be re-elected to a sixth term without them.

"If you want to become elected in this state, you have to come to labor, and I know that," he said.

Mr. Specter left the Republican Party in April due to the same kind of political realities--polling showed that it would be tough for him to win the GOP's nomination next year. So, after 29 years in the Senate, he returned to his roots with the Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware County, is likely to challenge Mr. Specter for the party nomination, telling a committee member today that "it would take an act of God for me not to get in" to the race. Mr. Sestak, who is waiting for his family's approval before formally entering the Senate race, followed Pittsburgh congressman Mike Doyle onto the union rally stage.

"There is an injustice being done today. I'm prepared to be there on Mike's wing, making sure EFCA [the Employee Free Choice Act] gets through," Mr. Sestak said.

In March, while still struggling to get Republican support, Mr. Specter announced he was no longer in support of EFCA, called "card check" by opponents, despite voting in favor of a past version of the labor legislation. He said today that he met with labor leaders Thursday to work on a compromise measure and will do so again Tuesday.

The politically-savvy union was well aware of Mr. Specter's history--catcalls mixed in with the cheers for the senator.

"You want our vote? We want yours," shouted retired iron worker John Heinlein. That started a bit of give-and-take with the senator.

"I understand your job is on the line and I understand my job is on the line...I think you will be satisfied with my vote on this issue," Mr. Specter responded.


More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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