The head of the nation's largest public employee union plans to step down next year, setting up a heated contest to guide a political powerhouse that has been one of the biggest spenders in Democratic campaigns.
Gerald McEntee, who has guided the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees since 1981, told members in a letter Thursday that he would not seek another four-year term at the union's convention next summer.
"We can be proud to have been at the forefront of every fight for civil and human rights, and for economic and social justice, in the past half century," McEntee, 76, said in the letter. "We transformed the role of the labor movement in American politics."
With tough-talking, gravelly-voiced McEntee at its helm, the 1.6 million-member union spent about $90 million during the 2010 midterm elections, making it the largest outside spender on congressional campaigns.
But that focus could shift next year _ depending on the change in leadership _ as public employee unions have spent the year furiously battling to retain their clout in state legislatures around the country.
The union's No. 2 official, secretary-treasurer Lee Saunders, is expected to try to succeed McEntee, but he will face a strong challenge from the union's New York leader, Danny Donohue.
Donohue has urged a more open debate about how the union spends its political dollars and resources and has said there should be more accountability for political spending. That could mean fewer contributions for congressional Democrats who have come to rely on the union's money.
Donohue narrowly lost to Saunders in a bid to become No. 2 at the union's last convention.
McEntee has enjoyed his role as a political king maker, heading the AFL-CIO's political committee and helping to build organized labor's campaign apparatus into a major force during the 1990s. As private-sector union membership dwindled, it was the public sector that saw growth, with public workers now making up more than half of all union members.
This year, though, the union has shifted focus to fight efforts to restrict the collective bargaining rights of its members in Wisconsin, Ohio and dozens of other states.
"McEntee did some good things in the past, but the challenges before us are ones that we've never faced," said Henry Bayer, head of the union in Illinois. "Not that Washington isn't important, but we have to make sure we're allocating resources in a way that best serves our members."
In August, McEntee and other union leaders fell short in their recall campaign to wrest control of the Wisconsin Senate from Republicans. But they are waging a furious campaign to pass a statewide referendum in Ohio next week that would repeal another measure limiting union rights. Recent polls suggest unions are poised to win that effort.
"The spark we have lit has ignited a national movement to defend the rights of all Americans against a broken government that too often responds only to the needs of the nation's wealthiest one percent," McEntee's letter said.
McEntee has said his union's massive political spending made it a target for payback this year, when Republicans gained power in dozens of state legislatures and aimed at cutting back pensions and health care benefits to public employees as a means to balance state budgets.
Steve Rosenthal, former AFL-CIO political director, called McEntee "a giant" of the labor movement.
"He got the funding together to begin to restore labor's political clout in the 1990s," Rosenthal said. "He thinks big, he goes long and he fights hard for what he believes in."
McEntee was a strong ally of President Bill Clinton, and his union backed Hillary Rodham Clinton over President Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. But the union lined up behind Obama after he won the nomination.