Health vote rankles labor but lifts Altmire's vital signs

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In a ballroom at the AFL-CIO state convention last week, the labor federation's political director was reviewing crucial upcoming elections and showed a picture of suburban Pittsburgh Democrat Jason Altmire.

Hundreds of labor leaders from across Pennsylvania booed at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Mr. Altmire's decision last month to vote against the health care reform package made him persona non grata among union members who supported his election bids in 2006 and 2008, but could catapult him to re-election for a third term in a right-leaning congressional district in an anti-incumbent year.

Just ask Republicans.

"It was politically very smart," said Harrisburg GOP consultant Charlie Gerow. "Democrats will go with him regardless. And it softens what could have been galvanizing forces in opposition to him."

According to Beaver County GOP chair Marty Matthews, "when you talk to people about Altmire the general person doesn't have much of a problem with him. When conservatives look at him, they say Nancy Pelosi might not be there if he wasn't for her."

Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, faces no opposition in the May 18 primary and at the end of March, with $1.2 million on hand, enjoyed a $1.1 million fundraising edge over GOP hopefuls Mary Beth Buchanan, the former U.S. attorney from Fox Chapel, and Keith Rothfus, an attorney and former Bush administration official from Edgeworth.

Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District is registered 51 percent Democratic to 39 percent Republican, but voted heavily Republican in the 2008 presidential race, part of why the Cook Political Report says it leans farther right than any Democrat-held district in Western Pennsylvania. The same report says currently that it is likely Mr. Altmire retains his seat.

Given the choice between Mr. Altmire and the two Republican candidates -- both of whom have been courting hard-right tea party activists -- some labor leaders acknowledged they would ultimately have little choice whom to support in November.

"Positions in politics can change dramatically," said Ed Yankovich, the United Mine Workers of America vice president covering Pennsylvania. "It depends on what Jason's positions will be now until then."

Mr. Altmire has supported other labor-friendly legislation, including a current House bill freeing up federal funds for large transit agencies.

"We believe he's for working families," said Patrick McMahon of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Pittsburgh. "I do know he has some issues with some other labor leaders -- the health care issue was a No. 1 priority -- so it was a bit of a disappointment there. I'm not so sure people will get over the shock of his vote."

The shock sent the USW to stage a sit-in in Mr. Altmire's district office in Aliquippa on the eve of the March 21 vote, and to claim the congressman reneged on a commitment to labor leaders including president of the United Steelworkers union, Leo Gerard, then state AFL-CIO chief Bill George and Allegheny County Labor Council president Jack Shea to support the health care bill. Mr. Gerard, who represents the biggest union in a district that claims 100,000 working and retired labor families, is still steaming over it.

"There are a lot of people angry at Jason not only for that vote but not living up to his commitment," he said. Asked if Mr. Altmire could get back in the union's good graces, he said "our folks will evaluate that as the days and weeks go by. Judging the level of anger and disappointment in our ranks, I think it's almost impossible for him."

Mr. Altmire, who declined to comment for this story, has said he never made "an ironclad commitment" to support the bill, and the conversation he had with labor leaders was months before the vote. He has "always promised he would vote with his district first and not the party line. This is exactly what he has done and what he will continue to do," a campaign spokeswoman said.

Mr. Altmire announced he was against the health bill March 19, claiming his office received thousands of negative calls and e-mails about it. Part of that was because union members were not calling, Mr. Shea said.

He "disarmed labor," said Mr. Shea. "We didn't make one call, because we had his absolute solid commitment."

The labor council president, who lives in Shaler, briefly considered running against Mr. Altmire as a write-in candidate in the primary or as an independent in November, but found the hurdles too great. Mr. Altmire hasn't talked to the labor leader from Allegheny County -- which holds almost half of the registered voters in the 4th District -- since the vote.

"There's nobody burning bridges. We're not the kind of organization that does that," Mr. Shea said. "He needs to start, No. 1, telling the truth, and No. 2, start talking to people. It's going to be hard for any leader of labor to bring the members of his district around to vote for him."


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com.


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