Party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak previewed the themes of their probable primary battle last night in back-to-back appearances at a meeting of the Delaware County Democratic Party’s executive committee in Broomall.
Sestak got a standing ovation from the crowd of about 100 packed into the Marple Library, in the heart of his political base. Specter received a polite reception – and some sharp questions - as he sought to reassure the party leaders and activists in attendance that he would stand up for Democratic values in the Senate.
Nearly two months ago, Specter abruptly jumped from Republican to Democrat, acknowledging that he could not accept the likelihood that voters in an increasingly conservative GOP would discard his 29-year Senate career as a leading moderate in next year’s primary. The last straw for many Republicans: Specter’s crucial vote for President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus.
Immediately after the switch, Obama, Vice President Biden and Gov. Rendell endorsed Specter for re-election in 2010 as a Democrat.
Sestak, in his second term in the House, is ramping up a challenge to Specter, arguing that the party establishment should not force an inauthentic Democrat down Pennsylvania voters’ throats for the sake of expedience.
“People almost laugh at me at this point, but I am getting in this race,” Sestak said last night. “I’m a Catholic and I understand conversions…but there has to be a choice.”
In his remarks, Specter stressed the stimulus vote – “a helluva vote, the biggest vote of my life” – and instances of bucking Republican orthodoxy over the years, including his championing of stem cell research and 1987 blocking of right-wing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. He referred repeatedly to his White House and gubernatorial endorsements while asserting that he never asked to be handed the Democratic nomination.
“Should I turn down Ed Rendell’s support? Should I turn down Vice President Biden’s support?” Specter said. “But for (Sestak) to say that his reason for running is I’ve been anointed – it’s just not so.” He added, “I’m ready to roll and rumble.”
Sestak mixed praise of Specter’s long service with barbs about his record, including his role in installing conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts on the Supreme Court, as well as support for Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and the Iraq war.
“I honestly think change means change,” said Sestak, a retired Navy rear admiral. “I believe it means having new ideas and the energy to execute them, through 2016.”
Specter faced some skeptical questions from the party leaders and the audience, especially over his opposition to so-called “card check” legislation that would allow unions to organize a shop if a majority of workers petitions to certify the union. Specter says he wants union certification to be decided by private ballot, as it is now, and told his audience he is among a group of lawmakers working on a compromise that would make it easier for unions to grow yet preserve the secrecy of the voting booth.
Peter Halloran, a union sprinkler fitter from Ridley Township, was not buying it, pointing out that two years ago Specter had voted to cut off Senate debate that was blocking an identical version of the bill in order to bring it to a vote.
“So you voted to bring it forward and then you were going to vote against it?” said Halloran, 33. “That doesn’t make sense.”
As Specter tried to explain the ins and outs of the Senate, Halloran grew frustrated. “This is the main question for the working people in this party – unlike you, the people who work for a living,” he said.
“We all work for a living,” Specter said.
“You’ve worked for the government for 40 years, what are you worried about a pension, health care?” Halloran responded.
At the end of the event, Specter said, “This is just the beginning of a dialogue. I understand it’s something new for you to be asked to support Arlen Specter when you’ve been working for three decades to beat me.”