Union fails in move aimed at N.C. Democrats who opposed health bill

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; 5:34 PM

A defiant move by one of the nation's most powerful unions to help oust Democrats who voted against the health care bill by establishing a third political party in North Carolina has failed because organizers did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the November midterm elections.

The Service Employees International Union and its North Carolina affiliate did not gather the 85,000 signatures by Tuesday's deadline, meaning the third party, North Carolina First, will not be recognized on the general election ballot. But organizers said they are drafting an independent candidate to challenge Rep. Larry Kissell, a first-term Democrat from a swing district who voted no on health care.

Organizers have recruited Wendell Fant, a registered Democrat and a former aide in Kissell's district office who said he was forced to resign over an ethics dispute, to run against his old boss. The SEIU and the State Employees Association of North Carolina are funding a petition drive to qualify Fant as an independent, spokesman Greg Rideout said.

"We're trying to give the voters in the district a choice that isn't just the same old thing," Rideout said. "The same old thing is a Democrat who goes to Washington and votes with the health insurance companies and a Republican who goes to Washington and votes with the health insurance companies."

Frustrated that Democratic lawmakers they deem too centrist are not pursuing a more liberal agenda, the SEIU and other labor unions and progressive advocacy groups have been taking on Democratic incumbents across the country, including in Arkansas. But while most of these family feuds have been confined to Democratic primaries, the North Carolina effort will play out in the general election.

This is an unusual move that Democratic officials warn could take away votes from Kissell and effectively hand the seat to a Republican.

"SEIU members should question how their valuable resources are being wasted in the 8th District," said Andrew Whalen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "It's an ill-advised and shortsighted effort."

Union organizers initially took aim at three House Democrats from North Carolina who voted against health care -- Kissell and Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre -- but dialed back their ambitions to target only Kissell.

Kissell represents a district in the heart of the state's struggling textile industry. His vote against health care disappointed and even enraged many local Democratic activists. But the national party is standing up for him.

"We're confident in Representative Kissell's reelection because of his independent-minded approach and his strong stands for middle-class families," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Kissell won the May 4 Democratic primary but faced a surprisingly strong challenge from party activist Nancy Shakir.

Two Republicans are competing in a June 22 runoff. Tim D'Annunzio, a conservative activist backed by some "tea party" groups, faces Harold Johnson, a former television anchor favored by the GOP establishment.

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