How to Deal with the Blue Dog
and Still Defeat the Republicans—
PDA Breakfast Meeting Discusses the 2010 Election
by Carl Davidson
About 40 seasoned Progressive Democrat activists from the 4th CD gathered on Aug. 7 at the Candlelight Lounge in Economy, PA for a two-hour breakfast discussion. The hot topic of the day was the District’s Blue Dog Congressman, Jason Altmire, and what to do about him in the upcoming election and beyond.
It was not an easy question. The people in the buffet line putting tasty scrambled eggs, sausage and home fries on their plates were a cross section of Beaver County’s best political fighters—steelworkers, trade union organizers, African-American community leaders, retirees, postal and construction workers, teachers, social workers and day care workers, and a few candidates and local elected officials. Almost all of them had worked very hard four years ago to replace the GOP’s right-winger, Melissa Hart with Jason Altmire in Congress. While there was little naiveté about politicians in this dining room, they had still expected more from Altmire, especially given the distressed condition of the working class and small business in the area.
“We all know what we’re here for,” said Tina Shannon, the President of the 4th CD’s Progressive Democrats of America, as she opened the meeting. “Most important is we want everyone to speak their minds so we can figure out how to work together on this. The floor is open.”
The Rev. Kevin J. Lee, head of the Coalition for a Thriving Beaver County, was the first to speak. “We all know Jason fairly well,” he started off. ‘He’ll invite us to his office and let us speak our minds.” The Reverend went on to describe some of his dealing with the Congressman, and was less than satisfied. “He’ll claim to be for Beaver County, but you soon come to realize he’s still a lobbyist for the health industry. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be laid off. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have no jobs in your community. He doesn’t know what it’s like to go without health insurance.”
“By joining the Blue Dog Caucus and declaring himself a ‘deficit hawk,’ Altmire has made it rather clear that he’s not standing with us,” added Carl Davidson, at activist with Beaver County Peace Links from Raccoon Township. “I just handed all of you a Peace Links flyer on what these two wars have cost our county, over $500 million, not to mention the cost in lives, from here and in the countries we’re occupying. If Altmire wanted to seriously get rid of some waste, he could start his deficit reduction by cutting off the money for the wars and bringing our troops home. But he did the opposite. I don’t plan on voting for him. If it were a cliffhanger, I might have a problem, but it’s not. So I want to see a large undercount, a political fact that will sting a bit. He should pay a price.”
“I’m too angry to vote for him,’ added Del Linville. “He’s said one thing and done the opposite too many times.”
Mike Sabat, a steelworker from Raccoon, urged everyone to look at a wide picture, whether they voted for Altmire or not. ‘We’ve got two good labor candidates running for state legislature, Frank Bovalino and Dennis Powell, and redistricting is on the agenda. We don’t have to work for Altmire; we can put all our energies in these two races whether you vote for Altmire or not.”
Charlie Hamilton, a retired postal worker and a member of the Beaver-Lawrence Central Council, AFL-CIO, didn’t disagree with the criticisms of Altmire. He urged a more traditional Democratic view along with a comprehensive review of Altmire’s voting record. “He’s been with labor more than 90 percent of the time. No matter how you cut it, he’s better for us than the Republican. We should help him win, but still keep talking to him and press him with our concerns.”
“I’ve agonized over this,” said Janet Hill of the USW staff, agreeing with Hamilton but also hearing the truth in the opposition to Altmire.
Steven Kocherzat, an Ambridge attorney took the floor next. “Working with families, I see a lot of suffering. I go from nursing home to nursing home, and the toll being taken is terrible. And I see the direct connection between how Altmire worked to gut the insurance reforms and the increase in that suffering. I know I won’t vote for him. It would have been better to have a candidate against him in the primary, but we couldn’t get one in time. Now the best we can do is work for a large undercount. That’s what anyone considering running against Altmire in the next Primary will look at, the undercount.”
Randy Shannon, PDA’s Treasurer, described PDA’s monthly Lunch Vigils outside Altmire’s Aliquippa office. “This month we focused on the upcoming plans to cut social security and Altmire’s failure to oppose it. They’re trying to raise the retirement age to 70. Think about this. What is the life expectancy of an African American worker? It’s 70. Think about the profound racism in raising the retirement age to 70 — you work your entire life paying into something that you’ll never see. We can’t let this stand.”
Shannon urged people to joing the vigil at Altmire’s office at noon on August 18th to protest the plan to cut social security. He also asked people to joing a large contingent from Beaver County in the upcoming Oct. 2 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice called by the NAACP, La Raza, SEIU and the AFL-CIO. ‘We need to make full employment the driving issue for both peace and prosperity.”
“Jason Altmire has always been a lobbyist,” declared Georgia Berner, Altmire’s 2006 Democratic Primary challenger. “He was when he started and that’s what he is today. When an issue comes down to corporate interests versus the needs of the people, Altmire will always to for the corporate interests.”
Lou Hancherick from Butler County brought up the importance of talking about the proposed financial transaction tax as the best argument for dealing with the ‘deficit hawks.’
There were a few newcomers to the group. Frank Kirkwood from Wexford focused on campaign financing, and how Altmire now received far more from PACs than from individual contributors.
At the end, Tina Shannon gave the last words to the two state representative candidates in the room, Frank Bovalino and Dennis Powell. “Jobs are the main thing,” said Powell, a steelworker running against Republican Jim Marshall. Powell also stressed the importance of local hiring into the new Marcellus shale drilling business, taxing the gas extraction, and regulating it to protect our water and air. “We can still create jobs and drill responsibly,” he said. ‘In fact, when you do it right, you create even more jobs.” Bovalino stressed his record of service over the years in Beaver County, including as a Beaver School Board member in contrast to his opponent Jim Christiana who has acted as a lobbyist for the gas drilling industry.
So what was the conclusion? While no formal vote was taken, a fairly clear consensus emerged. First, everyone was going to work for a good turnout to defeat the GOP, especially for the local candidates who were union members. Several speakers voiced support for Joe Sestak, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and Dan Onorato, Democratic candidate for Governor. While most people expected Altmire to win, they were unrelenting in their criticism of him. Some stressed the importance of finding a new candidate to oppose him in the next primary in 2012; others stressed ‘a sizable undercount’ as an indicator of progressive strength. As Reverend Lee said, “We need to vote for Altmire. But it’s time to make him very uncomfortable.”
Tina Shannon said: “When the word voting comes to mind, I don’t want that word to come into your head by itself, I want it to be voting and something else, voting and taking action to change this situation.”
Action for change will begin with a huge ‘Town Hall Meeting for Jobs’ at The Fez in Hopewell Township on Sept 23, being organized by both labor and community civil rights groups. “This could set in motion the wider local coalition,” said Rev. Lee, ‘ a force that we all know we need to drive progressive change here.”