John Baer: Specter, Torsella going gentle into that good fight?

Posted: February 16, 2009

YOU KNOW that thing about politics and strange bedfellows?

Well there's a Pennsylvania race taking shape that could make for a strange, unique and maybe unusually cordial campaign because of politicians' bedfellows.

Here's why.

Former National Constitution Center boss Joe Torsella is a Democrat who just signaled his intent to run against Republican Arlen Specter next year.

The two have similarities apart from their interest in the U.S. Senate - each one hired the other one's wife.

Torsella, 45, hired Specter's wife, Joan Specter, a former City Council member, as director of the Constitution Center's leadership gifts (meaning, she seeks out well-heeled contributors) back in the '90s.

She's still there. Torsella, who resigned from the center last month to run for the Senate, tells me, "She's very good at what she does."

Specter hired Torsella's wife, Carolyn Short, a partner at the city law firm of Reed Smith, as general counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee (which he chaired at the time) back in '05.

She worked with Specter on, among other things, the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

And last year, when Short, a Republican, was nominated by the Bush White House to the federal bench, Specter supported her.

Still does.

"I'm doing my best to make her a federal judge," Specter says, adding that he's written and spoken to President Obama about the prospect.

Doesn't this make Torsella and Specter something like candidates-in-law?

At the very least, everybody knows everybody pretty well, and there's clearly some level of mutual professional regard, at least for the wives.

What I wonder is how this might play out in a statewide race in a state where political races tend to be nasty.

Fast forward to the fall of 2010. If Torsella captures the Democratic nomination (you just know there'll be a multicandidate primary), and if Arlen yet again wins the Republican nomination (you just know there'll be an ugly primary), we could, perhaps, witness a new level of genteel campaigning.

Unthinkable, you say?

Well, Torsella says, "there's a healthy all-around respect" between and among the candidates and spouses.

He also notes, despite my take on these odd circumstances, that he doesn't think it's all that odd, "given that each of us has an active, accomplished spouse."

(Same could be said for the spouses' spouses: Torsella and Specter both are Phi Beta Kappa grads of Penn; Specter also graduated from Yale Law School, and Torsella was a Rhodes Scholar.)

Specter, 79, agrees that the situation with the wives is unique, and says that if the campaign happens, "I think it would be a civil, constructive debate."

Oh, yeah, Torsella worked for Ed Rendell when the latter was mayor, and Rendell worked for Specter when the latter was D.A.

Another commonality?

Specter is fighting Hodgkin's disease and says he's doing great.

Torsella has multiple sclerosis, controlled by daily medication, and says he's in the "best shape of my life."

So, can the same Ivy League school alums with spousal connections and mutual health issues really be mean to each other as opposing candidates?

"Well, I wouldn't expect to be mean in any case," says Specter.

See? So if it happens, maybe those bedfellows make for a kinder, gentler campaign, even a kinder, gentler Arlen.

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