Primary Day: Progressives and moderates fight for Democratic nominations
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leads in the polls to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. He is said to be recovering from a stroke that sent him to the hospital yesterday. | AP

Two Democratic contests today—a U.S. House primary in Oregon and the U.S. Senate primary in Pennsylvania—brought out, again, the simmering conflict pitting party “moderates” and its “establishment” of seasoned pols, pollsters, and consultants against Bernie Sanders-supporting progressives.

And that doesn’t even count the fact the Oregon primary alone is a multi-ring circus.

Oregon, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Idaho, and Kentucky all held primaries on May 17, but most of the action—at least for progressive voters—was in the first two states.


The open governorship tops Oregon’s ballot, but it’s not the one where the two party wings face off. Neither is the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Ron Wyden, chair of the powerful Finance Committee, is expected to coast.

Organized labor leaders, with one exception, appear to have united behind former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, for the governorship. She ran to succeed term-limited incumbent Kate Brown (D), the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, who is also deeply unpopular with the radical right. The Teamsters issued a joint endorsement of both Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read, who cast himself as the more moderate candidate in the race.

But the headlines went to three congressional tilts, in a six-seat U.S. House delegation.

The Fifth District features the “moderate” incumbent, Kurt Schrader, one of the few House Democrats to wobble on the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act: Against it in 2019 and for it last year. He’s also opposed raising the federal minimum wage.

Schrader’s 2019 anti-PRO Act vote led the state fed to not invite him to its convention the following year; Schrader switched to support after unionists picketed his office last year, the Northwest Labor Press reports.

His foe is progressive small-business owner Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a former AFSCME member in California, backed by—among others—the Teachers,  the Machinists, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Oregon Education Association, the Nurses and Health Professionals, the Oregon Nurses Association, the Service Employees, the Food and Commercial Workers and the Working Families Party.  In the 2020 primary, Schrader beat three underfunded foes, winning 68.8% of 105,000 total votes.

“Schrader is the third-biggest recipient of pharmaceutical industry contributions in Congress, and his critics say he also played a key role in stopping Medicare from negotiating lower prescription drug prices for seniors,” the Northwest Labor Press reported.

The Government Employees (AFGE), Teamsters Joint Council 37, the state Fire Fighters Council, the Operating Engineers, the Carpenters, and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 290 have endorsed Schrader, it added.

So did Democratic President Joe Biden.

“Because of the work we’ve done together, we’ve vaccinated the nation, we’ve seen the biggest and fastest jobs recovery in our history and we have made unprecedented investments in rebuilding our nation’s roads and bridges, in removing lead pipes, and providing clean water, and in making broadband accessible and affordable everywhere in America,” Biden wrote in his April 23 endorsement letter. “Now we have a lot more to do and to get it done we need to keep a Democratic Congress.

“Kurt Schrader has had my back from early on and played an important part in the progress we have made as a nation. That’s why I’m proud to endorse Kurt in his reelection campaign.”

AFGE’s key votes scorecard for this Congress, so far, gives Schrader a 100% “right” score, while all the other Democrats voted “wrong,” as far as the union was concerned, on the national defense bill, by opposing it. They each scored 94% “right” as a result. The defense bill was also the lone vote where the state’s sole Republican, first-termer Cliff Bentz, voted “right.”

While the two Portland-based House Democrats, Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, are safe, two other congressional seats are open: The new Sixth District and the Fourth District, which includes the state capital, Salem. There, state Labor Commissioner Kate Hoyle, from a union family and with a strong pro-worker record, ran to succeed retiring veteran Democrat Peter DeFazio. The current House delegation is 4-1 Democratic.

“We have a lot of representatives, Democrats and Republicans, who won’t stand up for working people,” Hoyle told the Northwest Labor Press. “Even the fact that we can’t pass the PRO Act to me is inconceivable.”

Hoyle also supports pro-worker “fair trade,” not pro-corporate “free trade.” DeFazio was the only Oregon U.S. representative to oppose such unbalanced “free trade” pacts, like NAFTA.

As House Transportation Committee chair, DeFazio worked with Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson—a fellow Oregonian—to insure strong worker protections were a condition for federal subsidies to keep airline workers on the job when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Hoyle is in the same vein, as a former unionist, from a family of unionists—father, grandfather, and sons.

The new Sixth District race featured three people of color, led by State Reps. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, and Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn. They sought the Democratic nomination against Carrick Flynn, a straight white male whom many commentators call a “stealth candidate.” Heavyweight outside party campaign finance committees back Flynn. He’s aired millions of dollars in ads but made few live appearances.

Oregon’s Working Families Party backed Salinas, but Alonso Leon touts herself as the true progressive in the race, campaigning on Medicare For All, shrinking income inequality, reducing student debt, and enacting comprehensive immigration, criminal justice, and campaign finance reform, the Labor Press reports. Her backing of universal pre-K was one reason Oregon AFT endorsed her. So have Oregon Single-Payer Advocates, and Bernie PDX—the organization representing Sanders backers in Portland.


The race for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania could be a key to which party controls the now evenly split Senate in the next Congress. The Keystone State is a classic “purple” state: Biden won it by coming from behind as mail-in ballots, plus Philadelphia, overwhelmed the right-wing Republican rural areas between Philly and Pittsburgh.  That makes the Senate race important, and controversial.

Days before the primary, blunt and plain-speaking Lieut. Gov. John Fetterman, one of the most unorthodox candidates ever seen on the campaign trail, had a wide lead over the rest of the field, notably Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who won a previously Republican congressional seat—with strong Mine Workers and Steelworkers support—in a special election several years ago.

After redistricting, Lamb represents a new more pro-Democratic seat but is giving it up to run for senator. He’s got most of the state’s union leaders in his corner. But his campaign has failed to gain traction against Fetterman.

Fetterman has Steelworkers District 10 on his side. He recently told a group of USW members in Bethlehem, “I don’t mean to be crass, but we need to keep making s— in this country,” NBC News reported recently.  His other labor endorsements are UFCW Local 1776, the Pennsylvania Postal Workers Union, and AFSCME District Council 47.

The 6-foot-8 Fetterman also campaigns in a hoodie and gym shorts, sports various tattoos, and disdains endorsements from elected officials. The one he supported in two presidential runs, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., has yet to endorse him. Newsweek reported Sanders has cut way back on endorsements, in general, this election cycle, preferring to concentrate on passing Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which he helped write.

Fetterman also says he’s a “basic Democrat” despite the style. He just puts those positions in down-to-earth terms which apparently appeal to primary voters. And he takes himself—sometimes as a one-man band—to deep-red counties in the middle of the state, where Democrats often must go in hiding and where their yard signs are stolen, or worse.

“I’m just a dude that shows up and just talks about what I believe in, you know?” he told the New York Times. “Voting is kinda critical to democracy,” he added, before telling a crowd in York, Pa.., he plans to “get good Democratic stuff done.”

The late wild-card in the Senate race is a May 13 stroke which put Fetterman in a Lancaster, Pa., hospital. He said in a statement his physicians solved the problem. But he stayed there at least through May 15.

“I had a stroke that was caused by a clot from my heart being in an A-fib (atrial fibrillation) rhythm for too long,” Fetterman’s statement said. “The amazing doctors here were able to quickly and completely remove the clot, reversing the stroke, they got my heart under control as well…I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage,” he said. “I’m well on my way to a full recovery.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.