Andy Stern's choice to succeed him as president of the Service Employees International Union dropped out of the race Wednesday, clearing the way for the union's top healthcare strategist to ascend to the powerful post.
Stern's longtime protege, Anna Burger, said in a memo that she would support her rival, Mary Kay Henry, an SEIU international executive vice president.
"We have worked side-by-side on many initiatives over the years, and I wish her only the best as president of SEIU," Burger, the union's secretary-treasurer, told the union's international executive board.
Henry, 52, heads the union's healthcare division, which accounts for close to half of the SEIU's 2.2 million members nationwide. Almost one-third of all SEIU members are based in California.
An SEIU staffer for more than 30 years who has never headed a local, Henry would become the SEIU's first female president and the top woman in the U.S. labor movement.
Henry, a lesbian, is a founding member of the SEIU's gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus.
The SEIU's international executive board is scheduled to vote on May 8, the day Stern's retirement becomes effective. If elected, Henry would serve out Stern's term, which ends in 2012.
Burger withdrew after a number of large chapters, including several in California and New York, backed Henry. Many viewed that as a rebuke to Stern, who has led the union for 14 years and had publicly supported Burger as his successor.
But Stern, described by supporters as a visionary who boosted SEIU's membership and political clout, has also been a contentious figure.
Critics blame him for deep divisions, notably among healthcare workers in California, where a breakaway union is seeking to woo SEIU members.
Stern also has feuded with the Unite HERE union, representing hotel, gaming and other employees, and its president, John Wilhelm.
Some local leaders have expressed concern about the union's financial health after millions of dollars in legal fees and other costs were spent dealing with intra-union feuds.
Burger rejected the notion that her failure to secure victory was a repudiation of Stern's leadership.
"The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a ‘shift in SEIU's priorities' or a ‘rejection of the Stern/Burger agenda,' " she wrote.