Bitter race concluded Thursday

Ken Howard’s election to national president of the Screen Actors Guild amounts to a repudiation of the uncompromising strategy that previous prexy Alan Rosenberg embodied during his four-year tenure.

With an impressive 47% of the vote after a bitter race, Howard’s win for a two-year term sets the stage for the next round of contract negotiations — and once again raises questions of a merger with sister thesp guild AFTRA.

In a brief news conference at SAG headquarters, Howard said his first task will be to reach out to DGA president Taylor Hackford, WGA West prez John Wells and AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon to discuss bargaining strategies. The contracts for all four unions expire in 2011.

“Despite the sharp differences that those of us active in guild affairs sometimes have over strategy and tactics, we need to continually remind ourselves that we’re all on the same team, fighting for the same thing — and by pulling together, we’ll only grow stronger,” Howard said.

Howard, who is SAG’s 25th president, led the ticket for the Unite for Strength faction that has advocated a more pragmatic approach to negotiations with Hollywood’s majors. And, in his bid to head the 120,000-member union, he had campaigned ton a platform of supporting merger with AFTRA (which has 70,000 members, about 45,000 of which are also members of SAG).

Howard’s primary challenger in the prexy race, Anne-Marie Johnson, garnered 33% of the vote, while candidate Seymour Cassel drew 18% and Asmar Muhammad took less than 1%. A total of 27,295 ballots were cast out of nearly 100,000 that were distribbed to SAG members.

Rosenberg decided against seeking a third term, asserting that he had become too polarizing a figure to be re-elected — and wasn’t able to win one of the 11 national board seats up for grabs in the Hollywood division. He backed his longtime ally Johnson to head the slate for the hardline Membership First faction, which lost its majority control of SAG’s 71-member national board a year ago — and then lost four more Hollywood board seats on Thursday.

“I’m disappointed but I will stay involved,” Rosenberg said.

Membership First also lost the secretary-treasurer’s post with Howard’s running mate, Amy Aquino, narrowly beating incumbent Connie Stevens. Johnson and Stevens did win national board seats along with Membership First candidates Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Elliott Gould, Diane Ladd and former SAG president Ed Asner.

Unite for Strength strengthened its hold on the board as Dulé Hill, Hill Harper, Nancy Travis and Marcia Wallace won Hollywood seats.

Johnson advocated moving toward a revamp of SAG and AFTRA jurisdiction, with SAG representing all thesps. Membership First candidates have continued to blast the feature-primetime deal that SAG members ratified this summer after a year of off-again, on-again negotiations with the majors.

“You put a lot of effort into the campaign but when it’s over, you have to respect the vote,” she said. “The members clearly want a change.”

Howard — who earned an Emmy on Sunday for his role in HBO’s “Grey Gardens” — secured endorsements from Tom Hanks, Sally Field, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Hector Elizondo and Tony Shalhoub. And Hanks said specifically that he was supporting Unite for Strength due to its advocacy for a merger.

Howard, a 40-year showbiz vet and current board member, is probably best known for portraying the coach in TV series “The White Shadow.” During the campaign, he accused Membership First –which controlled the national board from 2005 until losing last fall — of saddling SAG with a $6.5 million deficit due to the delay in negotiating the TV/theatrical contract.

Unite for Strength, led by Amy Brenneman, won five seats in last fall’s election after running on a platform stressing the need to work more closely with AFTRA, with the goal of merging the two

In other election results, New York members backed the more moderate United Screen Actors Nationwide slate and elected Mike Hodge as president over Mitch Green.

USAN candidates won all four New York national board seats. Sharon Washington took the most votes, followed by Monica Trombetta, Sam Freed and Liz Zazzi. Freed had been New York president.

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