Irate at Rep. Jason Altmire's vote against the health care bill, Jack Shea, the president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said he is considering a challenge to the McCandless Democrat in either the primary or general elections.
Mr. Shea, who's led the local labor group since 1998, said he was being urged by some colleagues to mount a write-in campaign for the May 18 Democratic primary. But he said that he was concerned that it might be too late to organize a realistic challenge for the nomination, given the difficulty of convincing voters to write in a name against a candidate with the considerable advantage of having his name listed on the ballot.
Mr. Shea said he might have a better chance of ousting the second-term incumbent by gathering enough signatures to run as an independent on the November ballot. He said that his consideration of a challenge was a response not just to Mr. Altmire's health care vote itself but also to his belief that Mr. Altmire had misled him and other labor leaders on his plans on the legislation.
"He didn't keep his word," Mr. Shea said. "I'm not the only one that he committed to. He told [Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President] Bill George the same thing. He told [USW President] Leo Gerard. . . . What he said very plainly was, at the end, the final bill, he would be there."
Referring to the failed health care push during the Clinton administration, when Mr. Altmire worked with the administration's health care task force as a congressional staffer, Mr. Shea claimed that the congressman had assured him that "he was around [when] they walked away empty-handed he wasn't going to do that again."
In response to a question, Mr. Shea said he was not concerned that an independent candidacy might tip the seat to a Republican.
"I've thought about that a lot," he said. "Everybody kind of says the Democrats are in trouble, but if you look at it deeply it's the incumbents who are in trouble. I just think the people are really aching for someone who will be truthful with them and try to reach out to the middle class.''
Mr. Altmire said he regretted the hard feelings among his labor supporters, but disputed the charge that he had misled them.
Describing Mr. Shea as "a friend," Mr. Altmire said, "The conversation that he is referring to took place in November," after Mr. Altmire's initial vote against the House version of the health care legislation.
"At that time I said, 'Look, I'm going to keep at this. I have every expectation that we're going get to something that I can vote for' . . . we didn't get to a place were I could do that."
Mr. Altmire said that national labor leaders had been lukewarm about the bill, and said he shared some of their reservations, and he repeated his concern that the compromise measure phased out subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans, which he said were heavily utilized by his constituents.
The congressman repeated that while he had said he was hopeful of being able to support the final legislation, he never made "an iron-clad commitment."
"I feel terrible that I've let my friends down; these are my friends," he said. "The fact that they are upset with me is not something I take lightly, but my vote can't be a political payback because someone supported me."
James O'Toole: email@example.com .