OFF THE FLOOR: U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, maker of history, quintessential politician, dies at 82.
By Peter L. DeCoursey
HARRISBURG (Oct. 14) – U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who spent nearly 50 years as a public figure making national history, died Sunday morning at his home in Philadelphia at the age of 82 due to complications from non-Hodgkins cancer.
Specter’s family said the former senator's funeral will be on Tuesday at noon at the Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. It will be open to the public with internment to immediately follow at Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley. The family asks that contributions be made in lieu of flowers to Philadelphia University or another charity.
Politically and by surviving cancer, heart attacks and other illnesses feared to be mortal, Specter earned a reputation former Gov. Ed Rendell termed in 2010 "the ultimate survivor, politically and every other way. Nothing ever stopped Arlen. Sometimes I think nothing ever will.
Longevity and influence are not unusual for the state's veteran politicians, but no Pennsylvania of his era made more of his opportunities to play a meaningful role in American history.
During the last five decades, Specter carved himself a larger national and historic profile than any other Pennsylvanian of the post-World War II era.
The Philadelphian was the longest-serving U.S. senator in Pennsylvania history. He influenced more major national historical events than any other Pennsylvania politician of the last 70 years.
He played key roles in the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in ensuring the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was stillborn and ended in farce, and in shaping the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court for the last 20 years.
He kept Robert Bork off the court and ensured Clarence Thomas was on it. He also played a role in ensuring the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, a protégé of key Specter allies. And he paid a price politically for that in his final election in 2010, after he switched parties and become a Democrat, and lost.
Specter helped reduce the tax cuts Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush could pass by reserving his vote until their plans came down to levels and he and other moderates would accept.
In key meetings in both administrations, Specter was first to say he would only support a lower tax-cut figure, and first to say he would vote for welfare spending and transportation funding. But in all four cases, he began a stampede of 6 to 10 GOP moderates on that issue.
THE MAN WHO KNEW HOW TO WIN STATEWIDE IN PENNSYLVANIA
During his 30 years in Pennsylvania politics, Pennsylvania went from a state Republicans could - and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did - win in tight elections, to one won four times in a row by Democrats.
Specter's ability to win elections statewide despite Democratic and Republican tides around him made him respected, and made presidents and colleagues seek his advice and follow his example to win elections in this state.
Steel tariffs were imposed and various public works bills passed, and in some cases not vetoed, because presidents listened to Specter, and on Pennsylvania matters, often followed his advice.
He benefited from a perception that appealing to both conservatives and liberals and moderates was possible, and for much of his career, his voting base drew on all three groups.
"No one knows Pennsylvania and how to win here better than Arlen Specter," President George W. Bush said in 2004, while spending tens of millions of dollars to lose narrowly to Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, here.
"For a long time, to win statewide for governor or senate or president, people thought you had to present yourself as a moderate," said Republican National Committeeman Bob Asher in 2009. "And they knew Arlen had the playbook for doing that, and a lot of people wanted a peek at how to do it.
"And a lot of businesspeople would be mad at Arlen sometimes and thrilled with him other times, but it came down to this: After the Republican senators we had, the business people and the presidents and the Senate leaders all thought he was as Republican as we were gonna get, and a lot better than electing a Democrat for businesses and Republican issues." Long-time Republican National Committeewoman and Duchess of GOP moderates Elsie Hillman said: "Arlen represented the hopes and dreams for many of us who see public service as an honorable profession and believe that moderation and compromise are strengths and not weakness’. Although never compromising on his principles, Arlen was a leader who was strong enough and wise enough to reach across the political aisle and find common ground in order to advance the common good. This attribute of Arlen's will be truly missed and is badly needed today."
Specter liked to say his his votes switched when the bills changed so much he had to change too. But he was dogged throughout his career by incidents like one in 1986. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he vowed to defend abortion rights in a Montgomery County meeting with liberal women on the same day he told a Johnstown Catholic audience he supported making pregnant women watch the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream.” That film depicted an abortion, fictionally, from the point of view of a fetus. Specter said both statements were true and the difference was in nuance unappreciated by critics and those not paying enough attention.
He also estimated that he spent more than half of any discussion correcting voters or reporters “who did not understand my position.” Also, while his moderate politics were not different from his predecessors, his love of debate and confrontation and willingness to pick fights to call attention to his stances was.
Now, Specter may have been the last Republican moderate senator from a state once known to churn them out two at a time for decades. Analyzing the three Republican senators before Specter: GOP Senate Leader Hugh Scott, Sen. Dick Schweiker and Sen. John Heinz, all were moderates and in some cases, cast more liberal votes than Specter.
But the last two GOP senators elected in Pennsylvania were fiscal and social conservatives, so much so that Specter predicted both could not be elected because of that: Rick Santorum, 1994-2006 and Pat Toomey, elected in 2010 after nearly unseating Specter in 2004 in the GOP primary.
Like most prominent Pennsylvania politicians with long and successful careers, Specter prided himself on delivering federal dollars and programs to his state.
And he loved his job. Working 16- and 18-hour days into his 70s, Specter said in 2004: “What else would I do. I love my job and I have a lot of things to get done for Pennsylvania in the Senate.”
“Nobody ever worked harder at politics or enjoyed himself as much at it as Arlen or got more out of it,” Rendell said in 2010 touting Specter in the Democratic primary. “I love politics and work hard at it. But it’s Arlen’s life.”
And Specter became Exhibit A, colleagues in both parties say, of the redefinition of the Republican Party from a pro-business affluent party to a dramatically more socially and fiscally conservative party in the last decade.
DELIVERING FEDERAL DOLLARS AND WINNING ALLIES
Rendell, Specter’s former protégé turned ally and sometimes rival and critic over their 40 shared years in public life, said: “Arlen Specter did more for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania than any public figure since Benjamin Franklin. For 30 years he fought for Pennsylvania and brought programs and funding here, more than other senators delivered, because he fought harder and smarter than his colleagues.”
A survivor of cancer and Hodgkins disease, who ultimately succumbed to a never-ending onslaught of major illnesses that he, compared to most patients, shrugged off, Specter more than tripled federal NIH cancer research funding, and made that cause a rare exception to his general policy of carefully parsing issue positions to sometimes defy description or easy understanding.
“I think he found his cause in life in cancer research funding,” said Fred Anton, a long-time Specter friend and backer, who also served as the bankroll for many of the groups who ultimately created the new GOP and ended Specter’s career. “He knew it was right, and he knew that no one else would do it because no one else had done it. So Arlen made his stand, called in his chips, and millions of people are going to live longer because of the cancer research.
“Like a lot of things with Arlen, that started with his personal experience as a cancer survivor and his feeling that a lot more should have been done than the NIH was doing.
“On a lot of things, Arlen would be on one side one day and on the other later. But this is one issue he never wavered on, even when it became unpopular and the Tea Party people thought he was spending too many federal dollars on this and other things.”
The stimulus bill secured $10 billion for NIH funding, dramatically increasing the main source of cancer research funding in the nation.
Specter also said in 2009 he made increasing funds for cancer an increasing priority personally, even as he believed over decades that the GOP de-prioritized it over the years to be more fiscally conservative and appeal to the anti-abortion movement by fighting stem cell research.
Specter used that perception over the years to get Republican presidents to make major concessions on Specter priorities, such as cancer and stem cell research. Specter maintained both of those priorities were good ways to appeal to Pennsylvania voters.
Specter said, right after the death due to cancer of former GOP vice presidential nominee and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, R-Buffalo: “If we had pursued what President Nixon declared in 1970 as the war on cancer, we would have cured many strains. I think Jack Kemp would be alive today. And that research has saved or prolonged many lives, including mine." Hillman also credited Specter with making funding for health research for women equal to that expended for men.
Specter thought he was defined in large part by the federal largesse he brought home.
He sometimes joked that if he was not popular, the federal dollars he brought to the state were very popular.
Specter also used federal funds and sheer work ethic to court the GOP and Philadelphia region political establishment skillfully for most of his career. In 2004, facing conservative challenger Toomey in the GOP primary, Specter and Santorum prevailed on President George W. Bush to vouch for Specter as a reliable conservative. Specter said Santorum and Bush narrowly saved Specter's career. And that was not popular with Bush's presidential father.
President George H.W. Bush made a special trip to Philadelphia in 1998 to tout a two-term-limit for U.S. senators. Specter, sitting in the audience for that trip, was then running for his third term.
But that kind of public spitting match with a prominent member of the GOP establishment was very unusual because most worked with Specter, some grudgingly, some admiringly.
More common were events like when former Gov. Bill Scranton addressed a Specter-hosted breakfast meeting full of the state’s biggest businesses and most powerful politicos in 2004.
The then-octogenarian Scranton rose up and walked unsteadily to the podium, and then glared at the audience, filled mostly with the state’s business elite.
He said: "We've had a wonderful group of senators, but we never had one who worked as hard and did as much as Arlen Specter. If you don't re-elect him, you should be shot!"
Former Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer was a political peer of Specter’s for 40 years and the two were the highest-ranking Jewish politicians in the state from 1981 to 2007. Jubelirer, while shorter, resembled Specter when they were younger and was often mistook for Specter.
“I supported him until he switched parties,” Jubelirer said. “But he was an awfully hard guy to support. He would take positions all the time against the base and a lot of times, while he would get it done in the end, getting there was confusing. But he was the hardest-working politician I ever met, all 67 counties every year. I don’t even know how you would do that.
Jubelirer’s successor, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, recalled that Specter visited Jefferson County in 1996 by bringing GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole there to a farm “that Arlen knew where it was, and I didn’t, and I was the county Republican chairman then.”
Jubelirer said: “He would work so hard that grudgingly, he would get votes. He was not well-loved. But he was extremely well-respected. And that is what he wanted.”
THE GREAT EXPLAINER
A two-term Philadelphia district attorney who failed in a bid for mayor then lost the 1973 election for district attorney, Specter broke his losing streak by winning a U.S. Senate bid in 1980.
In that victory, he defied the state political establishment of that time, including Gov. Dick Thornburgh and U.S. Sen. John Heinz, both of whom defeated him in campaigns that left both sides nursing grudges. A Republican detested by many GOP conservative ideologues for his first 28 years in the Senate, that enmity turned into a wildfire in 2009 after Specter cast key votes for bailouts and stimulus packages sought by Presidents Bush and Obama. Facing a party base that would clearly no longer elect him, Specter spent his last 19 months in the Senate as a Democrat.
After 30 years of explaining his votes in a way a majority ultimately supported at the polls, even when he was criticized as tricky or obfuscating, Specter’s candor did him in politically in 2010. He lost the Democratic primary to U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware. Sestak’s campaign made devastating use of Specter’s candid comment that he switched parties so he could win re-election.
Sestak and his team also forced Specter, now running as a Democrat, to say if he regretted helping to confirm any Supreme Court justices, since he had voted for the GOP court majority that was unpopular with many Democratic voters. He refused to say.
But unlike 2004, when Bush and Santorum saved him in a primary, in 2010, Rendell and Obama failed. Despite a major effort by Rendell, Specter lost to Sestak. His explanations and allies didn’t work, as they had before when that tactic saved him in in 1992 and 2004.
“Arlen always thought if he kept working and kept talking, people would accept his answer and still vote for him, even if they disagreed with them,” said Anton.
The clearest example of that, said his former campaign manager - now-U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Delaware - came when he ran afoul of women voters for his harsh cross-examination of Anita Hill, who alleged workplace gender abuse against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“It was very hot, that was the Lynne Yeakel challenge in the aftermath of the Thomas hearings, that was the ‘Year of the Woman,’ where seven members of that committee faced challenges from women because of the hearing,” said Meehan.
Senate campaign managers in other states largely sought to change the topic in their campaigns.
Not Specter, Meehan said: “Specter’s instinct was that he could demonstrate a strong record of support of women’s issues, from his time as a prosecutor of crime and working on some issues women had as paramount, essentially the choice issue. He believed he had a strong record and went at it. And he had a political instinct that if I do not confront this issue, it will fester and I will lose the support of women who might drift away.”
“We as a campaign actually solicited groups to have women attend and have an open forum. He explained where he believed he was being misunderstood and ultimately he did not dissuade a lot of women from being still upset, but they also ultimately looked at the overall record and became begrudging supporters, but supporters nonetheless. Arlen is an advocate and once he thought it through, he believed it and knew that he could usually make others at least accept it.”
This approach, applied to tens of thousands of issues over the years, led to a nickname coined by Santorum. Once a close ally and called “the man who won my campaign” by Specter in 2004, Santorum has spent his time as a presidential candidate apologizing for helping Specter.
But in 2000, with a wry smile and a slight eye roll, Santorum said of his then-close Senate partner and sometime Senate mentor, “Arlen’s the great explainer.”
His confidants disagree whether that long-borne-out confidence in his ability to explain led him to the votes that ended his career in the GOP and sent him to a Democratic primary he could not win.
“Once he got to 2009, he couldn’t talk his way out of it this time,” Anton said. “And voters didn’t value the things he had done, compared to the votes he had cast.”
Santorum and Specter both said Santorum warned Specter that his pro-Obama votes on the stimulus and bailouts would cost him his career. Further confirmation of that came quickly in 2009. Toomey had targeted his 2010 campaign towards governor, but shifted back to running for Senate because polls showed Specter could not win a Republican primary against a well-funded conservative opponent.
Specter defended those votes by saying: “I grew up in the Great Depression” of the 1930s. “I wanted to do everything I could to prevent another one. And I knew what would happen, but I made the right votes to save the country, to save the taxpayers, from what would happen if we hadn’t taken those steps.”
Anton says Specter understood what he was doing. Meehan says he doesn’t know if Specter understood those votes would end his career, or whether he thought he could explain voters back into acceptance, if not agreement.
“I don’t know what he thought when he did that,” Meehan said. “The only parallel was when he ran for president. He went out to Iowa and flew himself into the middle of that and it went nowhere and he was surprised. He was surprised by the intensity of the opposition and the meanness, to some extent, of what people would say and do.
“He attacked the hill. That was his way. He ran into danger by his very nature, so the calculations were probably made mid-course. He only begrudgingly, in time, acknowledged this wasn’t what he thought would happen with the presidential election.
“I don’t know if that was the case in 2009, too.”
Anton said the irony was that from his perspective, running a pro-business group for nearly 40 years, “Arlen was a moderate. Sen. Heinz was more liberal than Arlen Specter. [Former GOP Sen.] Dick Schweiker went to the left like you would not believe in his 12 years. [Former GOP U.S. Senate Republican Leader] Hugh Scott was a godamned liberal.
“Arlen was more centrist, less liberal than all of them. But the party has changed and Arlen changed some, but not a lot.”
A native of Kansas whose family knew former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole when both families lived in Russell, Kansas, Specter transferred from the University of Oklahoma to the University of Pennsylvania. His parents moved to Philadelphia to find eligible suitors for his sister, since few Jews lived in rural Kansas at the time, Specter later said.
After a tour in the Army and law school at Yale University, Specter became an attorney, then an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. He sought a State Senate nomination from the Democratic Party, but then switched to the GOP when they began to court him to run for attorney general. After his stint at the Warren Commission, he returned and ran and won as a reform district attorney, a Republican winning in a city that increasingly became more Democratic throughout Specter’s career.
That trend cost Specter his 1973 re-election as district attorney, when he lost to a Democratic Party-backed rival, Emmett Fitzpatrick, who won on the strength of huge Democratic registration edges in Philadelphia.
Many Specter allies believe the 1973 loss helped shape Specter’s response in 2008 and 2009 to the changing GOP. Having lost to one tide of voters in his career, many think Specter switched parties in 2009 to avoid having that phenomenon repeat itself. But in both cases, Philadelphia voters jilted Specter..
“But by this year , a lot of Democrats had been voting against Arlen Specter for 40 years, and when he got into the primary against an opponent with a lot less baggage, it cost him,” said Terry Madonna, a Franklin & Marshall College political science professor and pollster.
A MASTER OF “EVENING NEWS POLITICS”
Specter excelled throughout his career at drawing attention to himself and garnering favorable coverage on television newscasts. Literally thousands of politicians studied his methods of getting press coverage.
But while many joked of Specter that there was no more dangerous place to be than between him and a TV camera, Meehan noted the late Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., often was pleased when Specter let him speak first.
“He didn’t insist on speaking first, because he knew he could get into the story, the 30-second TV news story, once he did speak, because when he was on-camera, he would say something they wanted to broadcast,” Meehan said.
“Arlen excelled at getting on the news and looking smart and informed and caring,” said the late Philadelphia City Councilman Thacher Longstreth, a long-time rival and critic of Specter’s, even though the two agreed on many issues. “And he was very good at telling you what you wanted to hear. And one of his very unique skills was to annoy the hard-liners on each side of an issue, which made people think he was smart and reasonable. That is very hard to do and very hard to sustain. But he did.”
Asked after the Clinton impeachment trial ended in the U.S. Senate if he had upset both sides, Specter smiled and said, “I’ve had some experience with that.”
A VOTER BASE UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Specter used those abilities to forge a unique and diverse voter base unlike that of any other statewide politician by individual effort and sheer will. And for someone whose decisions and policies often upset those on either side of the issue, he was skilled at creating long-time alliances that grew into friendships.
“He would go to extraordinary lengths to push staff to get things done, and really, wouldn’t accept ‘no’ as answer, he wanted you to find a way to get it done or get something close to it done,” said Meehan. “Specter fought for people, people who were facing tremendous political challenges or legal challenges, all kinds of people.
“And he expected them to fight for him when he asked. Well, he really demanded it. And the people that asked him for help saw that he would, and then once they helped him, it forges a bond. And that is how he made alliances and real, genuine friendships with people like John Heinz, who started out not liking him. And they forged a real friendship, that started out as just being they both would look better if people thought they worked together, and they did.”
That was true of voters and local leaders. When Specter beat Toomey in 2004, it was because he and Bush and Santorum made enough voters in central and northern Pennsylvania, whom Toomey was counting on, give him one more vote.
DOING EVERY POSSIBLE THING HE COULD
When that didn’t work, as it did not with Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who spent part of his term in office being courted to run against Specter in 1986, when Specter’s first term ended, Specter worked tirelessly.
He called former state Sen. David J. Brightbill, R-Lebanon, “when I was just a wet-behind the ears, brand-new senator,” said Brightbill, “and it was a big deal to have a U.S. Senator call me and ask for a favor.”
Specter asked Brightbill to write a letter to Thornburgh asking the governor not to run against Specter.
Specter also wooed Anton, a key Thornburgh fund-raiser and backer, who first rose to political prominence when Thornburgh beat Specter and won the governorship in 1978.
But Specter kept asking Anton if there were things he could do for him.
“And there were,” said the man who has run the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association. “By the time Thornburgh’s inner circle was pushing him to run against Arlen, I was telling Jay Waldman, who was trying to get Thornburgh to run: the PMA is for Arlen and I’m for Arlen. And Arlen did that well enough, and enough around the state, that Thornburgh didn’t run.”
“And that was because Arlen did every single thing he could. That was what he always did: everything.
But that “always ask” approach didn’t work in 2008 and 2009 when Specter asked Jubelirer to help him raise funds from GOP businessmen in Altoona “with a group that had been very supportive of him [Specter].”
“I had to tell him: ‘look these folks are Jewish, and they have helped, but they are not going to help this year because they are mad at you for voting with the unions,’” said Jubelirer.
Failures that like that one multiplied in 2009 and 2010, as many old allies turned their backs on Specter or gave to Specter and Toomey, who would have been his GOP opponent.
But they didn’t discourage Specter from his lifetime belief that if he picked up the phone and asked, he materially increased his chances of attaining his goal.
Even in 2011, out of office and anathema to Republicans for having been driven to switch parties by his votes for the stimulus and other programs, he was irrepressible.
He reached out to Republican leaders in the Legislature and to Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to ask that state funding Rendell secured for the Arlen Specter Library at Philadelphia University would not be de-funded.
Scarnati recalled: “He called me to explain the project, and said 'it is a place where I want to lecture, talk about the Kennedy assassination. It’s important history, I would like to be able to do this and this is what needs to be done.'”
Specter said he was calling through the leaders to ask their views on it, and clearly hoped to be able to report to Corbett that they did not wish him to de-fund it.
All the leaders also knew by then that Corbett’s team was saying their hands were tied because Rendell had worked hard and legally committed the state to the project.
But the legal review had not been finished, and Specter wasn’t standing by.
Scarnati said after Specter made his pitch, he responded that he didn't "have a personal problem with it, it is a political problem and I don’t know what the governor is going to do and it is not the worst thing we did on a college campus.”
The library got funded with Corbett saying he had no legal choice. But for Scarnati, and others, it was an example of how “Arlen Specter knew how to pick up the phone.”
“…I think history is going to be kind to Arlen Specter. He had a huge role in American history. I don’t know that most Republicans feel that way, though,” said Scarnati.
SPECTER’S POLITICAL NURSERY
Specter also had a famous eye for political and legal talent: he hired Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia super-lawyer Dick Sprague as top assistants and watched the two battle for years. Rendell’s successor as district attorney, Ron Castille, is another Specter protégé, as was his successor, District Attorney Lynn Abraham. Specter then became a talent scout for Rendell and Castille, sending them both talented assistants.
Some also were politically helpful. When Rendell’s longtime ally, U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel, D-Montgomery, ran against Specter in 2004, Hoeffel ended up under-funded. Part of the problem was that Hoeffel and Specter had many of the same supporters and funders.
As Rendell told one group at the time: “Look I love Joe. The fund-raisers love Joe. He is a great guy. But they love Arlen more. And they loved Arlen first. And you can’t win when you are the second choice of the folks you need to give you money.
Hoeffel insiders saw it differently: “People take their cues from the lead dogs,” said one. “Rendell is the lead dog of Joe’s pack. And he was not going to go after Arlen or help Joe do it. And without Ed, Joe could not get there.
Many of those Specter-Rendell-Castille-Abraham alumnae now sit – or sat for decades – on the federal bench or on major state courts, such as Castille, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Other DA office grads include former Pennsylvania Attorney General Walter Cohen, who wrote in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, reviewing Specter’s “Life Among The Cannibals” that Specter’s successful career can be summed up as “perseverance, brilliance, hard work and, just maybe, don’t switch parties after 50 years in the game of politics, or you might be eaten alive during your own ‘Life Among the Cannibals.’”
In that book review, Cohen also reflected on how hard it was to work for Specter: “A brilliant, hard-driving man, Sen. Specter is known for eating his young. I can say that with affection and from experience, having been one of his young aides back in his early days when he was district attorney of Philadelphia. I was then a chief assistant district attorney and my office was about 25 feet from his, separated only by a small conference room. His demanding presence and quick temper made me always glad that I was bigger than he was, and hopefully could run faster. But he never demanded more of his staff than he gave of himself.”
SPECTER, STAFF AND THE JUDICIARY
Cohen clashed with Specter in the DA’s office and despite being a frequent candidate, and much-supported candidate for a federal judgeship by the GOP establishment and some Democrats, Specter blocked Cohen from the federal bench, even as he played a major role in putting more than 40 federal judges on it over the years.
“He did a great job of getting qualified judges on the bench,” Anton said. “I am very proud of working with him on that.
“That was why winning the 2004 election against Toomey was so important for him: it meant he would be Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He lusted after that for a long time, and in the worst way. That was what made him happiest about winning.”
Specter was a strong adherent of the “Javits Rule” that even the party not holding the presidency was entitled to a minority share of the judicial appointments. Serving under three Republican presidents and two Democrats, that rule gave him the majority of influence, but kept him relevant when Democrats were in office. And the Democrats who got to continue appointing judges during Republican administrations, kept their bargain with Specter when their presidents took over.
“When it came to the judiciary, Arlen cared and he gave a real damn about quality judges,” Rendell said. “He also cared about politics, but only once all the candidates were high-quality.”
Cohen is typical of a significant number of Specter’s staff, who regarded working for him as an exhausting marathon, and talk about how hard it was to satisfy him.
Unlike most politicians, Specter had virtually no staff who are closely identified with him and have stayed with him for most of his career.
Asked about that in 2010, he said: “My career started in the 1950s and I was elected DA in 1965. That’s a long time, Pete, for someone to work, much less work for one boss.”
He also, unusually for Pennsylvania politicians, had a family member who acted as his top advisor and go-between: his son Shanin. The bond between those two was so close, Specter let Shanin finish answers in after-debate interviews, or asked him to speak during them, in 2004 and 2010, a privilege no other aide got.
“When people say he didn’t have a David L. Cohen like Rendell did or a Mark Holman like Ridge did,” Asher said in 2004, “they were wrong. He has Shanin and they are very close.
But apart from Shanin and the senator’s wife Joan, a former city councilwoman, even friends acknowledged Specter, like many politicians, sometimes told them what they wanted to hear.
When Specter was helping Rendell get his former wife, Midge Rendell, onto the federal district court, Rendell called up Anton one day.
Said Anton: “He told me: ‘Here is what Arlen is telling me’” about the process and prospects of getting his wife confirmed, “’what is he telling you?’ And this is Ed Rendell and as much as they fought and bickered and argued, they worked on a lot of things together, he asked me: ‘What is he telling you?’ It turned out everything was fine and Arlen was telling us both the same things. But even Ed Rendell checked up on him when he could.”
Rendell and Specter also made up a formidable duo. Scarnati recalls taking a major business that needed an expansion of Route 219 to see Rendell. After Rendell discussed the project with and the businessmen, “The governor said, let’s call Arlen,” Scarnati recalled. “So the governor says, Arlen, here is what the state can do and here is what we would need from the feds to keep this company. And Specter says: ‘Well, I think I can get it for you in 18 months. Will that do the trick?’”
“And that was better than we were hoping for, and sure enough, 18 months later, the money was there and the road got expanded and we got more jobs. Nor was the only region Specter worked to help.
Scarnati said: “Now there are a lot of areas where I don’t agree with Sen. Specter, but I am telling you: boy, was that impressive.” U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said Specter "was also a tireless advocate for Northeastern Pennsylvania. When I was mayor of Hazleton, I worked closely with Senator Specter on economic development projects, and he always brought a voice of reason and experience to our discussions. I was also fortunate enough to testify before Senator Specter and the late Senator Ted Kennedy during a field hearing about illegal immigration in Philadelphia. At the time, offering testimony before those two giants of the Senate was daunting, but it was an experience I will never forget."
SPECTER, HEINZ AND SANTORUM - U.S. SENATE ALLIANCES
In some ways, more impressive team-ups were Specter and his Senate colleagues from Pennsylvania. That began with Specter and John Heinz, back in the 1980s, allies said, when Heinz was looked upon as the next Pennsylvania president.
Meehan said: “They began with a begrudging respect for each other which morphed into a genuine friendship. They both began to respect the ability of the other and got a lot done together. I think that probably colored Specter’s sense of what a relationship can be with a senator from the state. And you saw that with the way he cultivated Harris Wofford on issues and you saw it with Santorum.
“Rick wants to get things done and if you want to know how to get things done – Arlen’s way of getting them done – Arlen was someone who did that.”
Specter also played a key role in electing Santorum, even after telling him not to run because he was too conservative to be elected, said Meehan, one of the few Pennsylvania politicians to be genuinely close to both men.
Back in 1994, Meehan recalled: “Rick was a congressman running statewide and the race was still a long way from finished, but Rick was doing a real nice job building on the base he had out in Pittsburgh. But he was still struggling in the east, in terms of fund-raisers and the party apparatus and people having confidence he could win the race.
“I had been Arlen’s campaign manager in 1992 and Santorum told Sen. [Bob] Dole that he was upset about the management of his race” then being run by national Senate GOP staffers, but mostly by Santorum and his western-based loyalist supporters. In 1993, Specter had tried to recruit then Auditor General Barbara Hafer - who, like Specter, ended a long GOP elected career as a Democrat - and Teresa Heinz to run instead of Santorum. Then, Herb Barness, the state's top GOP fund-raiser, backed out of being Santorum's finance chairman in 1993, so Anton stepped into that role for Santorum for his first election. Once 1994 began, “The question was whether Specter would make his campaign apparatus available and help Santorum with key eastern supporters." Meehan said.
“I was summoned down to a meeting with Specter and Bob Dole and asked to run Rick’s race. We had two kids then and a third on the way, but obviously, with Dole involved, I said ‘yes I would’ and Rick and his team, especially John Brabender, and I very quickly put together a comfort level.”
“Then Specter got Barness, the single most powerful fund-raiser then in the state. Herb was the person everyone watched because if he got very involved, a lot of people would follow him.”
Specter and Santorum wooed Barness, who in some ways was closer to Santorum on business and taxation issues, than to Specter. Shortly afterwards, Meehan went to a meeting with the powerful GOP chieftains of southeastern Pennsylvania. Most entered the room still with doubts and lack of commitment to Santorum.
“Herb started pushing for Rick and you could feel the room change, and what happened is, Rick was already building a great base out west because he was his own dynamo. But after Arlen got involved in the spring of 1994, it started to help Rick emerge in the east.
“Rick never forgot that. He respected that Specter was there for him. And Rick is and was a stand-up guy, despite the politics of it. And Rick was there for Specter in 2004. Obviously it would have been easy for Rick to give token support in 2004. But Rick went in and gave Specter his full measure in the way Specter had done it for him.
“Specter is genuinely loyal. And very demanding that you be loyal. Specter would give you a lot of what he had when he was in a position to help. And of course, he wasn’t afraid to ask when he needed it. He did ask and he almost expected the people he fought for would fight for him and Rick did.”
That lasted until Specter's votes for stimulus and bailout, which Santorum urged him not to cast.
As late as 2008, Santorum insisted that Specter was a truer ideological conservative than the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
PROJECTS AND FED FUNDING FOR PENNSYLVANIA CAME FIRST
Specter, like Rendell, was a major sports fan, but unlike Rendell, did not make a major public display of it until after he saw Rendell reap political gain from it.
For the last 15 years or so, he would call in to Philadelphia radio station WIP, for much of that period the city’s most popular sports talk station, and talk about the Phillies and Eagles, two teams he actively followed.
But at his core, Specter always admitted that his life came down to the Senate, squash and politics.
And he was at heart a practical politician, devoted to setting goals, and bringing home dollars and projects.
Brightbill was solicitor for a Lebanon County authority in the 1980s when the county needed a federal law to allow them to keep the proceeds of property they sold after flood reclamation. The Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area had gotten the provision.
But the local Congressman, U.S. Rep. Bob Walker, R-Lancaster, saw it as an earmark, and so had someone else introduce it. Once local press fixed on it as an earmark, stories from that time said, Walker did little for it. So Brightbill was sent to get Specter to make sure it got into law.
Despite the controversy over fiscal prudence, Specter got it into law, Brightbill said.
Specter was fond of saying: “I get sent down here [Washington, D.C.] to bring things back.”
In 2011, after he was readjusting to private life and lecturing at Philadelphia University, I asked him what he thought of a plan to essentially split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving each candidate one vote per congressional district they won.
He hated it, saying: “I think it’d be very bad for Pennsylvania because we wouldn’t attract attention from Washington on important funding projects.”
He noted for 30 years presidents fixated on winning Pennsylvania, and when it came to federal funding, that gave the state “clout. … And I can’t understand why anyone in politics would want to give it away.”
Specter also kept federal programs going, Rendell said.
“For the last 30 years, he defended us from a lot of harm and suffering. When new [Obama administration] Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent out a notice of a change in the programs at the department that would affect the school lunch program, and thousands of kids in Pennsylvania would lose their free school lunch, [or their reduced-cost school lunch] we all complained. But it wasn’t until Arlen weighed in that the administration gave in. He saved that program not only for Pennsylvania, but nationwide.
“And that is just one example of what he saved Pennsylvania from.”