1199 Wants an Obama Ally in NY-23

ALBANY—The political director for one of the state's largest unions says he expects to support Bill Owens in his bid to replace John McHugh in Congress.

"We're looking forward to working with the candidate who is going to be working with the president on health care reform, and we expect that's going to be Bill Owens," Kevin Finnegan, political director for SEIU 1199, told me by phone. While the union's national leadership will be involved in making a formal endorsement–which it has not yet done–Finnegan's comments bode well for Owens.

Organized labor groups face a tougher-than-usual quandary in this special election, given the relatively conservative stances of Owens and the long ties to labor of Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava. 1199, which represents health care workers, spent more money than anyone toward the recent special election victory of Representative Scott Murphy, a Democrat. Finnegan would not say how much money or resources the union was willing to commit to any candidate it endorses.

The night Owens was designated by the 11 county chairs in the 23rd district as the Democratic candidate, he told me that he did not support a public option for health care. Finnegan said he spoke earlier this week with Owens and said "his position is a little more nuanced than that."

"He's looking for a solution that solves certain problems that exist today in our health care system, having to do with care and a competitive market for insurance," Finnegan said. "I did not understand his position to be in opposition to public health option. He's more nuanced than that; he's not making that a litmus test. That's what he indicated to me. I was not uncomfortable with his positions on health care."

The issue will, Finnegan said, be a major factor in the union's endorsement. Scozzafava yesterday issued a statement about her health care positions, which says in part that "while government has a role to play in providing health care to the uninsured, it cannot replace or crowd out private insurance."

Finnegan said she hasn't reached out to him or other 1199 officials.

"I have not spoken to her because she has not reached out to us," he said. "I don't know her positions because I can't get in touch with her; I presume she's not interested in working with us."