Can the Democratic Party Survive the Blue Dogs?
A Case Study of PA 4th CD Representative Jason Altmire
Nov. 26, 2010
By Randy Shannon,
Treasurer, PA 4th CD Chapter, Progressive Democrats of America
Depressing the Vote – Depressing Democracy“The Money & Media Election Complex,” an article in The Nation magazine, discusses the unprecedented $4 billion spent on the 2010 election and its influence on voter turnout.
To those bankrolling the system, voter cynicism and apathy are welcome…Their interests are best served by narrowing the range of debate and participation, since that makes it easier to buy the government.
This article intends to show that the analysis quoted above is valid based on the role of Jason Altmire’s campaign in the PA 4th Congressional District.
Jason Altmire’s 2010 campaign organization was well funded by corporate donors. His message depressed voter turnout and helped defeat the Democratic ticket. Altmire’s recent 2010 victory prepared the ground for a stronger Republican challenge to the Democratic Party in 2011.
If the Democratic Party is to carry forward the legacy of the New Deal, it must work for unity around a message that aggressively fights for peace and prosperity for the working families of our district and against the Republican agenda of war and austerity.
Representative Jason Altmire Wins Close Race
Congressman Jason Altmire, a member of the Blue Dog caucus and the New Democrat coalition was returned to the new 112th Congress to represent the PA 4th Congressional District. He defeated Keith Rothfus, a Republican attorney supported by local tea party activists.
At the Beaver County Democratic Party banquet on Oct. 21st, Altmire stated that he was leading Rothfus by 16%. In a pre-election column in the Beaver County Times, J.D. Prose stated: “Anyway, various polls have shown Altmire up by 11 or 12 percent, but we expect Altmire to win 57 to 43 percent.”
As Election Day approached, Rothfus was gaining in the polls as Republicans sensed a possibility of victory. By Nov. 2nd his lead had almost evaporated and Altmire won 50.8 to 49.2 percent, a thin margin of4,025 votes.
Altmire trailed Rothfus in Allegheny, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties by 9,189 votes. But Altmire led by 13,214 votes in Beaver, Lawrence, and Mercer Counties.
Jason Altmire’s Stance: Democrat In Name Only (DINO)
In his Nov. 6th column “Are Democrats an endangered species in Beaver County?”, J.D. Prose stated: “Independent research…has shown that Republicans are turning the county into a political graveyard for Democrats up and down the ballot … except if you’re U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire.”
In an article in the Pittsburgh online examiner, Rachel Kowalick, a conservative commentator, highlighted Altmire’s political stance in this election.
Altmire’s campaign strategy at this point seems to be running like hell from the Democratic leadership and agenda, while reminding voters that he’s popular as well as moderate. His first campaign ad is all about his willingness to “stand up to the President… and Nancy Pelosi.” And in today’s Trib-Review, he’s quoted as saying, “I spent the summer in my district…and everywhere I went, people told me they were happy that I took a stance against Pelosi and Obama’s policies.”
Kowalick summarized Altmire’s campaign “as a Democrat who’s against the Democrats.”
Columnist J.D. Prose in the October 10, 2010 Beaver County Times wrote:
Over the last several weeks, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire has been dubbed a poster boy for Democratic incumbents running against the Democratic Party. Here are a few examples:
“Democrats running scared” trumpeted talkingpointsmemo.com in the headline for a story in which Altmire was Exhibit No. 4.
“Mr. Altmire is running away with it, by running away from the president,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman.
Alison Harding wrote on CNN’s Political Ticker blog that “… many Democratic candidates facing tough races are distancing themselves from the national party …” and she then cited Altmire’s ad that “touts his independence from President Obama.”
Even that other Times — the one in New York City — pointed to Altmire’s ad bragging about his vote against health-care reform for a story on Democratic woes.
As a leading politician in the 4th Congressional District, it is Jason Altmire’s political stance that is playing a major role in “turning the county into a political graveyard for Democrats up and down the ballot.”
Altmire versus Sestak
PA 7th C.D. Congressman Joe Sestak ran for the US Senate as a Democrat who supported the Administration’s efforts to improve health care delivery and access, to reform Wall Street, to protect consumers, and to defend social security and Medicare against cuts and privatization proposed by the Republicans. He opposed Pat Toomey, an arch-reactionary member of the Club for Growth. Toomey’s campaign was well funded by Wall Street elites.
An examination of some key Democratic precincts in Beaver County shows how Altmire’s expensive campaign against the Democrats helped defeat Joe Sestak. Aliquippa, Ambridge, and Beaver Falls are typical Ohio River and Beaver River mill towns that vote heavily Democrat. Voter turnout in these hard hit areas is critical to a Democratic victory in Pennsylvania. Beaver County is a key swing county in close elections that see Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Democratic votes balanced by Republican votes in the rural center of the state.
In Aliquippa Ward 2, Democrats won over 90% of the vote. In Aliquippa Ward 6 they won over 65% of the vote. However turnout was 30% and 36% in these largest Aliquippa precincts.
In Ambridge Ward 1, Altmire won 63% and Sestak won 53%. In Ambridge Ward 2 Altmire won 68% and Sestak 65%. The turnout was 32% and 41% in these largest Ambridge precincts.
In Beaver Falls Ward 1, Altmire won 72% and Sestak won 65%. The turnout was 33%.
Center Township and Chippewa are typical hill towns with retirees, small business owners, and skilled workers that are swing voters.
In Center Ward 4 Altmire won 56% and Sestak won 43%. In Chippewa Ward 3 Altmire won 51% while Sestak won 42%. The turnout was 52% and 57% respectively in these large precincts. This pattern was consistent throughout the 4th Congressional District.
Altmire’s message depressed the turnout in areas that supported the Obama administration’s agenda to stimulate the economy to create jobs, to protect consumers from predatory banks, and to expand healthcare coverage.
Altmire’s message boosted turnout among voters motivated by insecurity. These voters blamed the Democrats for the financial crisis and for the bank bailout, both engineered by Wall Street insiders. Altmire’s stance on deficits reinforced these voters’ misconception that jobs come from the benevolence of successful businesses and not from government stimulated demand for goods and services.
The hill townships are also almost all white, while African-Americans live mostly in the towns in the river valleys. The anti-Obama and Pelosi rhetoric of Altmire was in tune with the coded racist message of the Tea Party such as: “Take back our country.”
Altmire’s political stance will carry over to threaten the Democratic Party in Beaver County in 2011. The corporate largesse showered on Altmire will not trickle down to Democratic candidates for commissioner and for the county row offices. Voter apathy instilled by Altmire’s anti-Democratic message will challenge future candidates to craft a strong message that will awaken voters to the serious threats posed by the economic crisis.
Follow the Money
Altmire’s campaign “against the Democrats” was well funded. As reported in the Beaver County Times:
Marty Matthews, chairman of Beaver County’s Republican committee, said…there was “no way” that he could keep pace with Jason Altmire saturating cable television with ad after ad after ad.
As of Sept. 30, Rothfus had spent $690,000 on his campaign and had $180,000 in cash while Altmire had spent $1.4 million on his campaign, had $926,000 in cash and received nearly $1.2 million from political-action committees.
In “Catching a Blue Dog: Keith Rothfus is right on Jason Altmire’s tail,” Rachel Kowalick looked at the 3rd quarter FEC filings of the Altmire and Rothfus campaigns. She wrote:
Despite Jason Altmire’s proven record as a money magnet, Rothfus raised over $306,000 this quarter. That’s right behind Altmire’s $352,537… Another surprise, while Altmire lists 188 transactions from individuals totaling $142,795, Rothfus drew 428 transactions from individuals totaling $279,033.
Of Altmire’s individual contributions, 60 of 188 were from out of state, with nearly 15% of those transactions coming from inside the Beltway. On the other hand, of Rothfus’s 428 individual contributions, a whopping 400 come from Pennsylvania residents.
…PAC money accounts for more than 60% of Jason Altmire’s total contributions this quarter alone…
Altmire is a self-proclaimed member of the Blue Dog caucus. The Blue Dogs took the lead in protecting business interests during markup of healthcare reform and financial reform legislation in Congress. Altmire follows the Blue Dog pattern of voting for all war spending as an ‘emergency’ but opposes unemployment compensation and child nutrition without offsetting budget cuts in the social safety net.
Less publicized is Altmire’s role in the ‘New Democrat’ coalition. The coalition is mostly corporate lobbyists, a group of Democratic Congress members, and key Congressional staff. Altmire is the co-chair of New Democrat coalition health care task force, which drafts health care legislation for corporate interests. Altmire then promotes the corporate legislative agenda in the House Education and Labor committee on which he serves.
An October 2010 article by Pro Publica describes the role of the New Democrats:
Over the past two years, their members have helped biotech companies win lucrative patent extensions during healthcare reform, fought to ensure that banks receiving TARP money didn’t have to trim executive bonuses, and helped block a proposal to allow bankruptcy judges to adjust home mortgages…
According to the Pro Publica article, Altmire runs a slush fund to hide the New Democrats’ fund raising and financial ties to Wall Street lobbyists:
Federal election law prevents corporate PACs from giving more than $10,000 to other PACs and prevents groups like the NewDemPAC from passing along more than $10,000 to an individual member’s campaign during an election cycle. To get around these limits, the New Democrats created the Keystone Group, which is run by Rep. Jason Altmire, a former federally registered lobbyist, and Helen Milby, the NewDemPAC’s chief fundraiser. Lobbyists who join the Keystone Group pledge to donate at least $500 directly to the campaigns of individual New Democrats at events organized by the coalition’s PAC.
Functioning like an invisible PAC, the Keystone Group directs contributions to caucus members without filing papers with the FEC, leaving no record of the New Democrats’ role in facilitating the transfer of funds. It’s impossible to say precisely which lobbyists are involved in the group and how much money it has raised. However, at the annual retreat in May, Altmire thanked Keystone members for raising $500,000 in the program’s first year and a half.
Background: Filling a Vacuum
Jason Altmire was a registered lobbyist for UPMC and formerly for the Federation of American Hospitals, who stepped into a leadership vacuum in local Democratic politics in 2005. The demise of the U.S. steel industry had decimated the base of the Democratic Party. The last local politician serving the PA 4th CD was Representative Joe Kolter, a former railroad worker and New Brighton councilman, who was snared by an investigation into the Congressional Post Office scandal.
Republican Congresswoman Melissa Hart was elected to three terms during George Bush’s presidency. Her undeviating support of Bush administration policies won her widespread opposition.
Georgia Berner, a local business owner, declared her candidacy as a Democrat for Congress. Progressive Democrats campaigned actively for Berner in the primary after she became a ‘Medicare for All’ supporter. A Citizens Congressional hearing on the healthcare crisis was held in May 2005 at the Aliquippa Croatian Club with Congressman Dennis Kucinich speaking for a national healthcare plan. Area labor leaders and over 250 people attended the hearing.
Altmire ran against Berner as a candidate ‘friendly to labor’ with the backing of some liberal and centrist Democratic members of Congress, such as John Murtha. The Beaver-Lawrence Labor Council held an early endorsement vote for Altmire. Altmire won the Democratic nomination with a heavy turnout from Allegheny County, and went on to defeat Rep. Melissa Hart by margin of 9,800 votes.
From 2006 to 2008 Altmire received high marks from labor and from the community. He made himself available to the voters and helped address the problem of neglect of military veterans.
As the movement for healthcare reform gathered steam, Altmire spoke against a national healthcare bill at public forums and in meetings with retired steelworker members of SOAR, which had endorsed HR 676. The corporate lobbyists funding the New Democrat coalition understood that national health insurance threatened their profits and damned it as “socialism.” At a meeting with union leaders from the 4th CD in Monaca, Altmire called national health insurance “unreasonable.”
Democrats Take Power
Democrats in the 4th C.D. voted overwhelmingly for Hilary Clinton in the May 2008 primary. After Obama won the Democratic nomination, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Altmire:
“A formal endorsement is no longer necessary,” Mr. Altmire said. “The Democratic primary is over, and I am going to support the nominee who was chosen by people who voted across all 50 states over the past five months. I expect the vote at the convention to be uncontested, and that our party will be fully united behind Senator Obama.”
Barack Obama held a rally in Beaver, PA immediately following his acceptance of the nomination. Altmire stood in the crowd instead of on the platform with Obama. When asked at a meeting of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees if he supported Obama, instead of answering the question, he predicted that Obama would win.
Altmire’s second term in the 111th Congress was his first opportunity to work with a Democratic majority to address the healthcare crisis and the economic crisis. At a time when his votes in Congress meant a margin of victory for healthcare and other reforms, Altmire used his membership in the New Democrat coalition and the Blue Dog caucus as leverage to push corporate interests in Congress and collect large donations from corporate PACs.
Working Against Healthcare Reform
At public meetings around the district Altmire repeatedly stated that Medicare was ‘too costly.’ Public pressure to pass national health insurance forced Congress to act on the issue. They began work on legislative alternatives to national health insurance. The Obama administration declared that Medicare for All was “off the table” and that a ‘public option’ would guarantee that mandated health insurance would be affordable.
Altmire worked in the House Health and Labor committee to implement the New Democrat’s corporate agenda to gut the healthcare reform bill and to kill the public option. Altmire publicly stated that he supported the ‘public option.’ While stating that he wanted to reduce healthcare costs, at the same time Altmire lobbied for provisions that raised costs and benefited the pharmaceutical companies.
Altmire sent Congressional leaders a letter opposing a public option linked to Medicare rates. This added $85 billion to the cost. Altmire signed a letter opposing efforts to recover windfall profits from the pharmaceutical industry in the healthcare bill, which added $63 billion to the cost. On July 17, 2009 Altmire voted ‘No’ on HR 3200 in the House Health and Labor Committee because he opposed a surtax on the wealthy.
The Federation of American Hospitals testified before Congress against Democrats’ plans for health care reform in 2009 on the basis of “cost containment.” Tenet Healthcare has issued its own declarations that the health care reform bill may reduce its profits because of problems with “cost containment.”
After the bill was gutted Altmire still voted against it because he claimed it did not deal with “cost containment.” In 2010 Altmire received numerous large donations from Tenet Healthcare PAC, from executives of Tenet Healthcare and their wives, none of whom reside or do business in the district. Altmire was also rewarded by the Federation of American Hospitals PAC.
Democrats Opposed to Altmire
Many local Democratic office holders and activists in Allegheny County personally raised funds and worked hard to swing the county for Altmire. They were outraged at Altmire’s swing to corporate interests, especially on the health care issue. They held a series of meetings in late 2009 in an unsuccessful search for an opponent in the May 2010 primary. Progressive Democrats supported this effort. A private robocall poll showed that Altmire was supported by only 36% of likely Democratic primary voters in early 2010.
The Pennsylvania Green Party tried to recruit and field a viable candidate from the labor movement to run against Altmire in the November election, but as is often the case, working people cannot take time off to run for office.
Progressive Democrats held a public breakfast meeting to discuss a boycott of Altmire in the 2010 election. PDA did not come to an agreement, but a significant minority of progressives and regular Democrats determined to punish Altmire for his betrayal by not voting for Congress.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO endorsed Altmire for re-election. However, some labor activists in the 4th CD refused to carry literature for Altmire. His vote against healthcare and his lobbying against extending unemployment compensation, as well as his refusal to take a position against cutting social security, depressed labor support in Western Pennsylvania.
Progressive Democrats worked in the campaigns for state legislator in the 14th and 15th Assembly Districts by two union members who were supported by the AFL-CIO and the CTW unions.
From Blue Dog to Chameleon?
There’s now talk in some union circles that Jason Altmire is chastened by his narrow victory and will mend his ways in the newly elected 112th Congress. The new Congress, to be seated in January, will be controlled by Republicans. It seems more likely that the Blue Dog Democratic caucus and New Democrat coalition, guided by corporate lobbyists, will form an alliance with the Republicans. This will enable the Republicans to pass legislation without the votes of the tea party caucus.
Altmire will be able to cast selective votes for some Democrat sponsored measures like jobs stimulus that will not pass. This will burnish his labor voting score, and may satisfy some of his union supporters. But it will also be used to undercut support for a “pro-Democratic Party” Democrat to run against him in the 2010 Democratic primary.
The Lame Duck Congress
Progressive Democrats must assess Altmire based on how he votes on the critical legislative agenda facing working families in the upcoming ‘lame duck’ session of Congress that starts on November 15th.
There is important unfinished business that the 111th Congress must address before it is replaced in January by the 112th Congress.
Extending unemployment compensation for long term unemployed
Reauthorizing child nutrition (WIC) – HR 5504
Defeating proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare
A Job-Killing Deficit Hawk
About 5.01 million Americans received emergency and extended benefits as of the week ended Oct. 16, according to Labor Department data. Another 4.34 million were getting the initial state-funded relief in the week ended Oct. 23.
An estimated 2.5 million people would lose their benefits by the end of the first quarter of 2011 should the program end. The federal government currently funds the emergency and extended benefits that keep the unemployed receiving checks after the 26 weeks of initial state-paid assistance runs out.
The chart below shows that over 6 million people have been unemployed for over 26 weeks.
The last time Congress passed the extension of emergency unemployment compensation Jason Altmire lobbied against it. Quotes (below) from two columns by Ryan Grimm in the Huffington Post May 2010 show that Altmire does not consider being laid off for over 26 weeks to be an emergency for working families of Western Pennsylvania.
Altmire boasted of delaying the extension of unemployment benefits for a week with a debate about deficits. Meanwhile several million people were left with no income to pay for food and housing.
Blue Dogs are now baying. “The week we had talking about the need to pay for things that are not emergencies has paid off,” said Blue Dog Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).
And Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), after pushing party leaders to trim a domestic aid bill, said that in light of four months of job growth, “At some point you have to take a step back and look at the relative value of unemployment benefits versus people looking for jobs.”
After the last extension that ends this November Arthur Delaney in the Huffington Post quoted Altmire again opposing unemployment:
“I think beyond this it’s going to be very difficult to justify if the economy continues to improve,” said Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), whose district faces a 9% unemployment rate. “What this shows is the Democratic Party are the people who are fiscally responsible, who are concerned about the deficit now.”
The chart below shows the job losses in all the recessions since World War II. The red line is the current recession. It is the deepest job loss since the Great Depression of 1929. And it is now the second longest employment recession since World War II.
This demonstrates that Congressman Altmire’s statement that extending unemployment compensation can’t be justified is false. His statements are scripted by the New Democrat lobbyists. There is a minimal recovery in jobs. Furthermore, the predicted GDP growth rate under 2% guarantees that employment will remain stagnant for years.
If Altmire does not support extension of unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed this month, then he has not “mended his ways” and must be opposed. On a November 19th vote to suspend House rules to consider extending unemployment compensation Altmire voted ‘Yea.’ This motion failed because it required a two-thirds affirmative vote.
In a June 2010 article by Dean Baker, Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Altmire was named a “job killing deficit hawk.”
Altmire’s advocacy of fiscal discipline is questionable given his support for extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Altmire co-signed a letter with 30 Democratic Blue Dogs asking the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to end her opposition to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization
Childhood hunger in the U.S. is on the rise. According to the USDA, 16.6 million children were food insecure in 2008, up 4.4 million from 2007.
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), State Administrative Expenses (SAE), the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and other smaller pieces of the complete package of child nutrition programs must be renewed because they have actual expiration dates.
H.R. 5504 would reauthorize child nutrition funding at significantly higher levels to improve access to school meal programs, improve meal quality, and fill nutritional gaps during the summer and after-school. The bill would authorize approximately $8 billion in new funding over ten years. Congressman Altmire is not a co-sponsor of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which will be coming up for a vote in the ‘lame duck’ session.
At a September 1, 2010 meeting sponsored by the PA Alliance of Retired Americans (PARA) at Community College of Beaver County, Altmire stated that Child Nutrition should be paid for by cutting the Food Stamp program. With over 9% unemployed and 35% Black unemployment in Beaver County, hunger is a real and widespread problem. Many working people in the 4th CD depend on food stamps to make ends meet. But Altmire is detached from the reality of the people in his district and appears unsympathetic to the needs of the poor and jobless.
Conflating Social Security and the Deficit
Obama appointed a commission to study cutting the deficit to satisfy the deficit hawks. Congress has promised an up or down vote on the recommendations. The deficit has been created by war, the Bush tax cuts, and the $13 trillion bank bailout. Public pronouncements in interviews by the commission co-chairmen make clear that their target for deficit reduction is the Social Security Trust Fund.
Since the Trust Fund has a surplus of $2 trillion paid by direct transfer from wages it has nothing to do with the deficit. However it is a source of funds for other purposes if it is not paid to the intended beneficiaries. Any recommendations to cut the social security cost-of-living adjustment, to extend the retirement age, or to raise taxes will hurt those most vulnerable to the economic crisis.
Social Security benefits are the largest source of retirement income for most retirees. For six in 10 seniors, Social Security represents more than half of their income. In addition, nearly one-half of elderly unmarried women and widows, and one-third of all beneficiaries, have little other than Social Security and rely on its monthly benefit for 90 percent or more of their retirement income.
In 35 years, it is projected that the $2 trillion surplus will have been spent in benefits to the baby boomer generation and that the program will no longer be able to pay 100% of benefits. That long term shortfall is being used as the cover story for stealing the trust fund now. A sensible solution is to raise the cap on Social Security income to $106,000.
At the September 1, 2010, PARA public meeting with Cong. Altmire, President Jean Friday asked Congressman Altmire if he would pledge to vote against any recommendation to cut social security. Altmire stated that he would make no pledge and would have to review the “whole package.” The “whole package” is the commission proposal that links cutting the deficit to cutting social security. If Altmire was concerned about social security he could simply introduce legislation to raise the cap. Altmire’s use of “whole package” indicates that he plans to use the deficit commission report as cover for his vote to cut social security.
The legendary investor Warren Buffett said: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The bankers created the economic crisis, continue to profit from it, funded the Republicans and Blue Dogs, and promote divisive politics that depresses voter participation.
The Democratic Party must recognize the class war that Buffett describes and promote unity against racial politics that attempt to divide us. Glenn Beck falsely stated: “Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people.” The ‘rich class’ is using the media to promote white insecurity to undermine solidarity.
Congressman Altmire’s anti-Obama and anti-Pelosi rhetoric promotes division among working people that aides the Republican agenda of divide and conquer. Congressman Altmire’s active role in the Blue Dog Caucus and the New Democrat coalition is based on loyalty to the interests of the corporations who, in turn, reward his loyalty with enormous piles of cash.
Democrats can win by unifying around a more comprehensive program for change. In 2011 local Democrats will face another wave of Republican challengers fully funded and organized by corporate lobbyists. The lobbyists have no interest in the thousands of unemployed and undernourished in Beaver County. They have no interest in those without access to healthcare or with inadequate unaffordable healthcare. They have no interest in the needs of our retirees for a social security fund that allows them to live in old age with dignity. They have no interest in the future of working families and their children.
Progressive Democrats will communicate with Representative Altmire in every possible way to urge his support for unemployment compensation, child nutrition, social security, and fair elections now, despite his loyalty to corporate lobbyists. We need to make his positions clear while we work with other forces in the community to organize a movement for full employment and national healthcare to solve the economic crisis.
Join us and bring friends to our monthly one-hour vigil at Altmire’s Aliquippa office every third Wednesday from noon to 1:00pm. Or just stop by and drop off your letter to Altmire. Help us raise awareness, lobby Altmire, and create a public space to air our concerns.