Specter woos Democrats and labor

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Jobs are on the line, Arlen Specter admitted yesterday, not least of them the one he has held for 29 years in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Specter was in Pittsburgh to address the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, in his first major address to statewide party leaders since leaving the Republican fold six weeks ago. He spent the day trying to re-establish his old ties to the Democratic Party and win back the favor of organized labor, which he said are essential to winning re-election to a sixth term next year.

"I'm no longer a Republican in name only," he said, referring to GOP criticism of his swing vote in favor of President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. "I'm again a Democrat. And I'm pleased and proud to be a Democrat."

The Philadelphia native acknowledged it was "a very important speech" for him, so much so that he relied on teleprompters to make sure he got his precise message across to the 194 committee members convening at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown.

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 be here where I feel so welcome and so comfortable, because we share the same core beliefs," he said.

Mr. Specter, 79, may feel comfortable in the party. But at least two fellow Democrats are expected to challenge him for the Senate nomination next year, including U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County and state Rep. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg.

Mr. Sestak, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, is awaiting approval from his family before officially entering the race but told a committee member yesterday that "it would take an act of God for me not to get in."

Mr. Specter was introduced to the hotel ballroom crowd by Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George, who also welcomed him to a union rally in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act earlier in the day. When he was still a Republican in March, Mr. Specter had announced his opposition to the bill known to opponents as "card check," which would make it easier to organize unions.

Yesterday the senator told some 400 wary and vocal union members that he "is committed to finding an answer" in the form of a compromise that could get the legislation approved, and admitted he cannot be re-elected without union support.

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

The politically savvy crowd was well aware of Mr. Specter's slippery history on that bill and others. Catcalls mixed in with cheers for the senator.

"You want our vote? We want yours," shouted retired iron worker John Heinlein.

"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.

Mr. Sestak also addressed the union rally, giving unequivocal support to the labor legislation. He spent the rest of the morning meeting with union and party officials -- in many cases, the suburban Philadelphia man was introducing himself for the first time, pointing up one of the challenges he will likely face next year.

He is also going up against the party establishment, with Mr. Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey all in the Specter camp.

"I would like to [have that support], but at the end of the day this is about working families. They're not looking at what a political party's established leadership says they should vote for," Mr. Sestak said in an interview.

"It's going to be run on the issues and I intend to do that. That's what really matters. ... Ultimately, it is not about today or the immediate election. It's about who's going to be there for us on the issues consistently in 2016," he said.

In his speech to party officials, Mr. Specter reminded the crowd of issues where he had voted with Democrats in the past, including the minimum wage, abortion rights, environmental issues and protecting civil liberties, which triggered a standing ovation from the crowd. He recalled his Depression-era upbringing, saying "My memories are bright from my boyhood days when the politics and policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were a beacon of light in the Specter home.

"It's been noted that as your senator over the past 29 years, I've often been more popular among Democrats than among Republicans," he said. "And if I've been popular with Democrats, it's because I've stood for what you've stood for."

Democratic committee member and Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald of Squirrel Hill said Mr. Specter's speech -- and his departure from the party of George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh -- marked the end of an era in American politics.

"I feel like I witnessed history," said Mr. Fitzgerald. "I'm not saying I'm supporting Specter, but he's a symbol of a national sea change away from right-wing extremism."

Afterwards, Mr. Specter met with about 60 committee members and other Democratic leaders from Allegheny County. He answered 18 questions on issues ranging from EFCA to veterans benefits.

None of the questioners appeared hostile. Some welcomed him to the Democratic Party, and one -- Jim McNeil, Democratic committee chairman in Elizabeth Borough -- started his question about merchant marine benefits by calling him "Super Senior Sen. Specter."

Mr. McNeil said he was a lifelong Democrat, but Mr. Specter was the first Republican he ever voted for. He said he thinks Mr. Specter can carry Pennsylvania, adding, "A lot of times he worked on the Democratic side."

Ed Ednassan, a retired hotel and restaurant employees union president, said he is 80 percent behind Mr. Specter, but he wants to see how the union legislation works out. His wife, Ally, a Democratic committeewoman in Ross, said she favors Mr. Specter either way.

Braddock Councilman Bill Zachery said, "I'm committed to the Democratic Party." He said he will vote for Mr. Specter if the party endorses him.

Fran Daley, Democratic chairwoman in Duquesne, noted Mr. Specter's role in breaking party ranks to approve the federal economic stimulus package.

"I like what he did on the stimulus vote," he said.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Eleanor Chute at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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