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NEWS ANALYSIS

Some Democrats skeptical of Specter's party switch

Top Democratic leaders face tough audiences as they try to transform a longtime Republican with a mixed record on key issues into the party's 2010 Senate nominee in Pennsylvania.

April 29, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party drew cheers Tuesday from President Obama and other top Democrats. But some key players in the party base viewed the move with suspicion -- demanding that if Specter wants to call himself a Democrat, he had better start acting like one.

As a moderate Republican, Specter maintained friendly relations with Pennsylvania's powerful labor unions, which were glad to have him on their side on many issues. Now, if Specter hopes to win next year's Democratic primary and retain his seat, that will not be enough.

"As of now, he has about a 68% voting record [in siding with labor], which is good for a Republican, but does not meet the mustard when it comes to getting endorsed as a Democrat," said Bill George, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Neil Oxman, a Democratic strategist who advises Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, described Specter as a politician who "transforms himself for every election" and is now "disguising the fact he supported Bush 76% of the time and voted for all of these Republican judges." Oxman's criticism previewed a likely attack that the newly minted Democrat will face in a party primary, possibly from another Oxman client, state Board of Education Chairman Joseph Torsella.

"The question is, will Democrats buy this or not?" Oxman said.

Such sentiments underscore that top Democratic leaders and Specter face some perils as they try to transform the senator from a Republican with a mixed voting record on labor and environmental issues into the Democratic establishment's favored pick to be their nominee.

Obama, in offering Tuesday to campaign and raise money for Specter, risks alienating key elements of his base in a politically important state. And Specter, who vowed that adopting the Democratic label did not mean he would start agreeing with the party on every issue, may soon find himself forced to satisfy a new set of constituencies -- particularly if he faces a serious competition in the May 2010 primary.

Complicating matters from the start were Specter's statements Tuesday reiterating his opposition to legislation being pushed by the unions that would make it easier for them to recruit new members.

Specter also said Tuesday that he opposed Obama's pick to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen, an outspoken critic of Bush-era interrogation policies. And the incumbent senator will be forced to reckon with a sour rating from environmentalists; last year he earned a 27% rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Those stances threaten to cloud the positions that Specter and leading Democrats say could put him in good stead with their party -- including his support for abortion rights, his strong backing of embryonic stem cell research and his recent role as a key GOP backer for Obama's stimulus bill.

Policy stances did not come up during his negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Specter said, adding that doing so with the senator from Nevada would have led to a "long, perhaps unpleasant, conversation."

Nevertheless, Obama, Reid and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, all embraced Specter on Tuesday as the Democratic favorite, and all offered to campaign for him.

This is a puzzling development to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who has been eyeing a Senate bid. Sestak, who represents portions of the politically important Philadelphia suburbs that have recently moved from swing regions to Democratic strongholds, had been viewed as a strong contender.

The shape of the Democratic Senate primary election "needs to reside not in the hierarchy of my party but with the citizens of Pennsylvania," Sestak said. The party leadership, he said, is "making a judgment call on what they evidently think is best, because they are caught up in how many votes they have in the Senate."

Sestak said that Specter would have to answer a series of questions in the coming weeks, such as why Democratic voters should view him as a leader in their party when he failed to prevent the GOP from moving to the hard right.

"What are you running for, Arlen?" Sestak asked. "How are you going to use your leadership to shape the Democratic Party? Is it to the way we believe Pennsylvania should be helped? And the platform we should follow? Are you a Democrat, an independent or a Republican?"

Specter appears to understand the challenge ahead.

On Monday, one day before his surprising announcement, he met privately for several hours with top leaders from the Teamsters union, telling about 200 officials gathered at a Hershey, Pa., hotel that they should back his reelection.

He sat for a private hourlong session with international President James P. Hoffa and William Hamilton, a top Teamsters official in Pennsylvania.

Specter has long had a rapport with Hoffa and the Teamsters, a potent force in state politics, but relations cooled considerably after his announcement last month that he would vote against the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workplaces. Many believed Specter opposed the measure to curry favor with GOP donors and to salvage his bad poll numbers among Republican voters.

On Monday, Hoffa and Hamilton delivered a stern warning that Specter would lose their support, and thereby the election, if he did not come to their aid on the legislation.

"If he maintains his position, he won't get the support of labor in Pennsylvania. And if labor doesn't support him, it won't much matter what party he belongs to," Hamilton said. "But Sen. Specter is someone who knows how to compromise. And he certainly didn't shut the door on us."

--

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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