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Labor leader: 'Blame me' for sparse Obama crowd

An Allegheny County labor leader said on Wednesday he's to blame for unfilled seats during President Obama's speech to about 300 people in a South Side union hall.

At least 50 seats in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 5 hall were empty when Obama took the stage about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday to pitch the jobs plan that senators later rejected. Obama toured the IBEW's training center, met with members of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and delivered a 25-minute speech pushing for passage of his jobs bill.

Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea said he misjudged the seating capacity and didn't invite enough people. Several floor seats that were supposed to be filled remained empty because, he said, about 45 people took spots behind the president's podium.

"I guess you can blame me for that," Shea said. "I have people mad at me now because I didn't invite them."

The sight of empty seats makes for unwanted visuals for the re-election campaign of a president who became known in 2008 for filling arenas. Television reports ran shots of the empty seats, and Republicans seized on a photo a Tribune-Review reporter posted on Twitter. A Republican spokesman e-mailed the photo to reporters beneath another photo of a packed 2008 Obama campaign rally at Mellon Arena.

"If a president is in town, you can get a lot of folks to come. That's not a problem, so I take them at face value if they say they just miscalculated," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick. "Any time a president speaks, if there are visuals of empty seats, it's alarming. 'Why wouldn't a room where the president is giving a talk not be full?' is a reasonable question."

Shea said the White House finalized plans for the visit on Friday afternoon, giving him the weekend and Columbus Day to select and invite guests.

"I could've (invited) five people per seat," Shea said.

In the days before Obama's visit, several Democratic congressmen told the Trib they wouldn't attend the speech, citing commitments that included voting in Washington.

Several of organized labor's priorities, including a public health insurance option in the health care overhaul and the Employee Free Choice Act, failed to become law despite Democratic control of both chambers of Congress during Obama's first two years in office.

"I think, like a lot of groups on the left, there were high expectations for President Obama, and some of those expectations haven't been met," Borick said.

Shea said union members blame Republicans and conservative Democrats for the setbacks.

"I have not seen (a drop in enthusiasm) in our ranks yet. I have seen our people understanding that Obama, as he's been president, everything he's tried to do, (Republicans) have tried to stop him," Shea said.

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