By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; A01
RALEIGH, N.C. -- A political rebellion is brewing inside an old funeral home near the state Capitol here. Frustrated liberals and labor organizers are taking aim at the Democratic Party, rushing to gather enough signatures to start a third party that they believe could help oust three Democratic congressmen.
Less than two years ago, this same funeral home was a command post for the grass-roots army that propelled Barack Obama to victory in this conservative swing state. Here is where supporters distributed signs and stickers, sorted lists of registered voters and rallied with a Johnny Cash cover band.
Now, some of Obama's supporters are mounting a defiant strike against the president's party. The nascent third party, North Carolina First, could endanger the Democratic congressional majority by siphoning votes from incumbent Democrats in November's midterm election, potentially enabling Republican challengers to pick up the seats.
Organizers say they are so fed up with Democrats who did not support health-care reform that they simply do not care.
"Our whole agenda is to turn that apple cart around and say, 'No more are we going to blindly support you because you're a Democrat,' " said Dana S. Cope, executive director of the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC), which is leading the effort. "We're going to support you because you're right on the issues and if you're not right on the issues, we're going to remove you from office."
Chuck Stone, a longtime SEANC leader who is chairman of North Carolina First, asked: "Does it really matter if you put a Democratic label or a Republican label on them when they go up there and support big companies and big insurance?"
SEANC and its parent group, the Service Employees International Union, possibly the nation's most politically powerful labor union, are funding the effort, which was announced April 8. In the days since, they have hired more than 100 canvassers who are rounding up the signatures needed to qualify as a third party on the general election ballot.
This is a top priority for outgoing SEIU President Andy Stern, who considers it a way to hold Democratic lawmakers accountable for their health-care votes. "It's not a fly-by-night kind of thing," said SEIU spokeswoman Lori Lodes. "We're making a very strong commitment to doing this. There is significant money behind it . . . There's not a ceiling to what we're willing to do."
The unions are giving voice to progressive activists across this state who say they feel betrayed by Reps. Larry Kissell, Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre, Democrats who sided with Republicans against the health-care bill.
In Senate and House races across the country, emboldened liberals are going after lawmakers who, as they see it, have not sufficiently championed President Obama's agenda. So far, these family feuds, which also include Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's run for Blanche Lincoln's Senate seat, largely have been confined to Democratic primaries.
But what is happening in North Carolina is different. Establishing the new party will be difficult, however. The group must gather signatures from 85,000 registered voters by June 1 to qualify for the November ballot. Then it has one month to nominate candidates; organizers said they had not identified any.
Still, Democratic leaders are keeping watch. The effort threatens to pull money and support from Democratic incumbents who badly need both in a year without Obama atop the ballot and when the political environment is toxic.
"It's an unfortunate turn of events that they've decided this is how they want to use their energy and resources," said Andrew Whalen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, who was a dues-paying SEIU member when he was a maintenance worker in college.
Republicans hope to capitalize on the rancor. Kissell, Shuler and McIntyre are in "a political no-man's land," said North Carolina Republican Party spokesman Jordan Shaw. "Their base isn't very happy. I don't think there's any excitement for Democratic candidates."
McIntyre and Shuler's votes against the health-care overhaul were expected. McIntyre has long been one of the most conservative Democratic lawmakers. (He recently joined Republicans calling for a repeal of the bill.) Shuler, after being recruited by national Democrats, was elected in 2006 in a mountainous district that had long been dominated by Republicans. He has carefully distanced himself from his party's leaders.
"You buy a dog, don't be afraid when it barks," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.
Kissell's vote has agitated progressives the most. Stretching from Charlotte to Fayetteville, his district is at the heart of the state's floundering textile industry and has one of the nation's highest rates of adults without health insurance.
Harrington Smith, 20, knocked on doors for Kissell in 2008. Then Kissell twice voted against the health-care bill, and Smith, a college junior, is now canvassing for the third party, telling voters in a quiet and leafy neighborhood in Raleigh: "He's not looking out for the people. . . . I just want to hold him accountable."
Kissell, a millworker who became a high school civics teacher, had never held elected office, but he impressed many Democratic activists, including Michael Lawson, vice chairman of the party's 8th District committee. Lawson says Kissell's support among party activists is evaporating.
"Larry Kissell couldn't get elected dog-catcher in the 8th District," Lawson said. "It's been an utter disaster. If anybody wanted to commit political suicide, Larry Kissell has shown them the way."
Kissell's spokeswoman declined requests for an interview with the congressman but provided a statement from him explaining his vote. Kissell said the country needs health-care reform but voted against the bill because it would have cut Medicare funding. He had made a campaign promise never to cut Medicare and said in the statement, "I am a man of my word."
That explanation only aggravated Democratic activists.
"Health reform legislation is the most important piece of legislation for the past 40 years, and when you are asked as a member of Congress to vote on something that critical and you pick little teeny excuses, that's cowardly," said Greg Rideout, spokesman for North Carolina First. "It's time for us to create a third way."