Altmire becomes target for unions over healthcare law vote

Unions are targeting Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.) in his primary with fellow lawmaker Mark Critz (D-Pa.) and they look like they have a chance to defeat him.

The groups are furious that Altmire voted against the Democrats’ healthcare law two years ago and have made him a top target this cycle.

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The two lawmakers were thrown into the same district by Republican state legislators when Pennsylvania lost a seat in the redistricting process.

Altmire started out with a big edge in the primary — about two-thirds of the new district includes his old territory, while Critz has only represented a quarter of it.

But unions have been working hard to help Critz overcome his geographic disadvantage, and a recent poll shows that Altmire’s once-substantial lead has shrunk considerably. 

Both candidates predicted a close race but sounded confident they could win Tuesday’s primary. 

“I feel very good. We’re getting a great response. We’re going to know a week from now what happens, but I feel like we’re in a great position,” Altmire told The Hill earlier this week. 

“I feel really good, very good,” said Critz. “It’s going to be close — I can’t imagine it’s going to be more than about a 500-vote spread.” 

A poll released this week from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review showed Altmire leading Critz by 4 points. An internal Critz poll from late March showed him down 7 points, while an internal poll from Altmire had him with a 24-point lead in mid-March. 

Altmire won his 2006 election with big union support, and they backed him again in 2008. A number of union leaders in the area told The Hill that he had promised them to vote for the Democrats’ healthcare law weeks before the final vote on the bill but ended up voting against it.  

Union leaders were furious at the lawmaker for the vote and how he handled it. After a threat to run a candidate against him in the 2010 Democratic primary fizzled, they refused to help Altmire in the general election that year, in which he narrowly won. Now they’re doing everything they can to make sure Critz beats him this cycle. 

“He told a roomful of 60 labor leaders that at the end of the day, the last version of whatever the House bill was going to be, he would be there and that there would be some things in it that labor wouldn’t like and he would be voting for it anyhow,” said Jack Shea, the head of the Alleghany County Labor Council.  

Four other union leaders, many of whom had worked to help Altmire in his first campaigns, told similar stories. All are now working to defeat him.

Patrick McMahon, of the Transit Workers Union, an Altmire backer, said he was at one of the meetings the others referred to and that while Altmire said he hoped to back the final bill, he gave no firm commitment. “I didn’t hear him say what they heard him say,” he said.

Critz wasn’t in office at the time but has said he would have voted against the bill. But the union leaders said it was more whom they felt they could trust. 

“It’s bigger than this issue — it’s the fact that [Altmire’s] credibility was lost,” said Bill George, the former head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “This guy will do anything to win. What I don’t like about him is that he’s disingenuous.” 

“We worked hard to get him there and he really abused our relationship,” said Tim Waters, the national political director of United Steelworkers. “We absolutely do feel betrayed — our local activists on the ground as well. He lied to these folks.” 

While a few local unions have backed Altmire, Critz has the backing of numerous unions, including the state AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 

Altmire cut short his interview with The Hill when he was asked about why the unions were targeting him. 

“You’d have to ask them,” he said before getting into a waiting car on Tuesday. 

His campaign said the lawmaker has previously denied making any such promises, adding they were more concerned about what union members thought, not what the groups’ leaders said. They pointed out that in the recent Tribune-Review poll, Altmire still led Critz by 7 points among union households.

Altmire has secured some important backing. He was endorsed by the left-leaning editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an influential regional paper, which wrote that Altmire “showed a keener understanding of key legislation” and praised him for voting to allow gays to serve openly in the military and protecting funding for Planned Parenthood. 

Former President Clinton endorsed Critz, a big deal in a primary likely to be dominated by blue-collar workers. Clinton was close friends with the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Critz’s old boss, and Critz and Murtha worked hard to help Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary. She won Pennsylvania. Bill Clinton has made a habit of backing those who have backed his wife. 

The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will go on to face attorney Keith Rothfus (R), who nearly beat Altmire last election, in a slightly Republican-leaning district.

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