WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of the nation's largest public employee union plans to step down, setting up a heated contest to guide a political powerhouse that has been one of the biggest funders of Democratic campaigns.
Gerald McEntee, who has guided the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees since 1981, has informed senior union officials of his plan to retire, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press.
"Last night President McEntee called me to let me know he has decided to retire and will not be running for re-election," the union's Indiana leader, David Warrick told members in an e-mail on Wednesday.
AFSCME spokesman Chris Policano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The tough-talking, gravelly voiced McEntee, 76, guided the 1.6 million-member union to spend about $90 million during the 2010 mid-term elections, making it the largest outside spender on congressional campaigns.
But that focus could shift -- depending on the change in leadership -- as public employee unions have spent the year battling efforts to curb their clout in state legislatures around the country.
It is not clear exactly when McEntee will step down. If he leaves before the union's 2012 convention, secretary-treasurer Lee Saunders would become interim president. But Saunders is expected to face a strong challenge from the union's New York leader, Danny Donohue.
Donohue has urged a more open debate about where and how the union spends its political dollars and resources and said there should be more accountability on political spending. That could mean fewer contributions to congressional Democrats who have come to rely on the union's money.
Donohue narrowly lost to Saunders in a bid to become the union's No. 2 official at the last convention.
McEntee has relished his role as a political king maker, heading the AFL-CIO's political action committee and helping to build organized labor's campaign apparatus into a major force. This year, though, the union has spent millions fighting 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 show unions poised to win that effort.
"For 75 years, our members have worked to build a strong middle class and keep the American Dream alive for every working American," McEntee said in a statement last week celebrating the union's 75th anniversary.
"We have a proud history fighting for collective bargaining rights, for civil rights, for women's rights and for the vital public services that Americans depend upon in good times and in bad," McEntee 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.
He was a strong ally of President Bill Clinton, and his union backed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. But the union eventually lined up behind Obama.