Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — Some leaders of the black community, organized labor and the health care reform movement in Arkansas have expressed growing disenchantment with U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, signaling uncertainty within key factions of the Democratic base the two-term incumbent has relied on in past elections.

Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas NAACP, told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week that an "A" rating the national association gave Lincoln for her voting record was undeserved, saying he would give her a C minus.

Also last week, Alan Hughes, president of Arkansas AFL-CIO, issued a statement charging that Lincoln has "ignored the interests of working people in Arkansas too many times," and Candis Collins, state coordinator for Health Care for American Now, said "history will not be kind" to Lincoln for fighting to limit the scope of health care reform.

Lincoln faces two Democratic primary opponents, including Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who has been actively courting the support of blacks, labor unions and health care reform advocates. Lincoln has angered some in those groups by boasting of her opposition to the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act and a government-run health insurance option.

"She’s paying close attention to what big business wants, not what working people want," Hughes said in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau.

The AFL-CIO endorsed Lincoln in 2004 when she was seeking a second term in office, but this year the federation of unions is backing Halter. Lincoln has criticized Halter for his union support.

"She has taken over $500,000 from Arkansas union members," Hughes said. "She didn’t complain about it then."

Hughes, Collins and Charles all said Lincoln disappointed them by taking a stand against a public health insurance option, though she did ultimately vote for the Senate health care bill.

"I’m almost sure we would have come out better than we did" if not for Lincoln’s actions, Collins said.

Charles said Lincoln also let down the black community — which helped her get elected — by largely failing to recommend blacks for judicial vacancies in federal courts in Arkansas.

The NAACP does not endorse candidates. Charles said his personal opinion of Lincoln has "changed drastically" during her second term.

"She has demonstrated that she takes our vote for granted," he said.

Lincoln has defended her positions on the Employee Free Choice Act and the public option, saying she answers to Arkansans, not to special interest groups or the national leadership of the Democratic Party. Regarding Charles’ comments, Lincoln’s campaign has said that while Charles is entitled to his opinion, the NAACP’s "A" grade accurately reflects Lincoln’s voting record.

Lincoln spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum said Lincoln has received an outpouring of enthusiastic praise from, among others, top officials with Arkansas Hospice, the Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the Arkansas Hospitality Association and AARP.

"On behalf of nearly 375,000 AARP members in Arkansas, we thank Sen. Lincoln for supporting the health care reform legislation put forward by the Senate," Jerry Lancaster of Conway, a member of AARP’s executive council, said in a recent statement.

"We thank Sen. Lincoln for her efforts ... to help craft a bill that improves health care for Arkansas families," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Facing a challenge from the apparently more liberal Halter, is Lincoln smart to stake out the political center, even if it costs her the support of some who backed her in the past?

"Conventional wisdom is that unions are not strong in Arkansas," and the public option "was something that a lot of people did oppose in this state," said Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

But English noted that the Republican Party has an eight-man Senate primary to decide, so not many Republicans are likely to vote in the Democratic primary. That means alienating any part of the Democratic base can be risky, he said.

"The people who brought you to the dance, it’s not good to make them mad," English said.