Former Sen. Arlen Specter dies at 82

Specter campaigns at Citizens Bank Park as he runs for re-election in the Democratic primary in 2010.
Specter campaigns at Citizens Bank Park as he runs for re-election in the Democratic primary in 2010. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 16, 2012

ARLEN SPECTER was a Republican officeholder for 44 years, but when he switched to the Democratic Party in April 2009, it was like a homecoming.

Although the move was made for political purposes, the five-term U.S. senator confessed at the time, "I had never felt really comfortable in the Republican caucus."

After all, he had been raised a Democrat in Wichita, Kan., in a family that venerated Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he came to Philadelphia as a Democrat in the 1950s.

He became a Republican only when he was denied the support of the Democratic City Committee in his bid to become Philadelphia district attorney in 1965.

When Republican party boss Billy Meehan offered him GOP support, he accepted - and the rest is political history.

Arlen Specter, the longest serving U.S. senator in Pennsylvania history, a man who made friends and enemies left and right as he rigorously pursued a centrist political agenda and a lightning rod whose career was marked by headline-grabbing controversies, died Sunday at the age of 82. He died in his home at 11:39 a.m. from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his family said.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said he got the news from Specter's son, Shanin, shortly before kickoff of Sunday's Eagles-Lions game at Lincoln Financial Field, where Specter had season tickets about eight seats down. "As soon as I put down the phone, I instinctively looked down at the end of the row," he said.

Specter acknowledged on Aug. 28 that he was battling a recurrence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which had afflicted him twice before, in 2005 and 2008.

But he vowed that he would beat it, as he had beaten it before. "It's another battle I intend to win," he said.

He also suffered a benign brain tumor in 1993, had radiation treatments in 1996 for an undisclosed condition, and had a heart-bypass operation in 1998.

Typical of Specter's feisty determination to overcome physical infirmities was his attitude in July 2008 after successful chemotherapy.

His main concern was to get his hair back and he had lost none of his combative spirit and optimistic outlook.

"I'm at the top of my game," he told the Inquirer.

He had started playing squash again, his favorite way to keep in shape, and also said he was looking forward to running for a sixth term in the Senate in 2010.

It was in that campaign that he decided to switch back to the Democratic Party to avoid a defeat in the GOP primary by conservative former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, whom he narrowly defeated in the 2004 primary.

When Toomey announced he would challenge Specter again in 2010, Specter, facing certain defeat, decided to explore the idea of switching parties.

He called his family together at his son's Gladwyne home. Also present were his wife, Joan, and daughter-in-law, Tracey, who was chairwoman of the Republican Committee of Lower Merion Township.

After such consultations, Specter, whose discomfort with the Republican Party was intensified in recent years when he felt extremists had taken over the agenda, decided to make the switch.

It didn't do him any good. He lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak, who went on to lose to Toomey in the general election. The end of Specter's Senate career came on Jan. 3, 2011.

"The night of the [2010 primary] election, he called me and said, 'Congratulations, Joe. I'll be out there supporting you tomorrow.' I was honored to be in the arena with the best of the best. No one came close to him," Sestak said. "I thought I was a hard worker, but nobody outworked Arlen Specter. He made me reach beyond my grasp."

Discussing his disappointment with his fellow Republicans in one of his books, Specter wrote: "I made many friends, but I didn't speak up much at weekly policy lunches and other gatherings, because I knew that what I had to say would not be well-received. So I didn't go out of my way to start an argument."

In his book, "Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, a Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing As We Know It," Specter wrote:

"When I arrived in the Senate in 1981, [my] independence - making judgments and decisions as each vote and issue arose - had placed me snugly with a cabal of centrists. Those moderate senators made the deals that kept the country moving."

He decried what he called "extremists - in both parties," who have "replaced tolerance with purity tests."

"He was not tainted by party pressure or by outside sources. He called everything the way he felt about it. That's what I always respected about him," said 94 WIP morning host Angelo Cataldi, who often took calls on his show from Specter, a hard-core Philly sports fan. "I couldn't believe at the end that people reacted the way they did when he switched parties."

Democrats had been trying to get Specter back into the fold for a long time. While attending a ceremony at the White House in April 1996, he encountered President Clinton, who told him he would make it worth his while to become a Democrat.

Recalling the encounter in his book, "Life Among the Cannibals," Specter wrote that he told Clinton he had once been a Democrat.

"He said, 'Yeah, I know.'

"I said, 'You only have one sex change.' "

Specter's political career stumbled regularly in the early days. He was defeated in his try for a third term as Philadelphia district attorney by defense lawyer F. Emmet Fitzpatrick. He lost an effort to topple Mayor James H.J. Tate for mayor in 1967. He was defeated in the 1978 Republican primary for governor of Pennsylvania by Dick Thornburgh.

But in 1980, Specter became the Republican nominee for Senate when incumbent Richard Schweiker announced his retirement. He defeated Pete Flaherty, the Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh, in the general election.

"There was just never a dull day in the Specter-palooza. It was always a fun and interesting ride," said Christopher Nicholas, Specter's campaign manager in 2004 and 2010, and a consultant in 1998 and 1992.

Specter's campaign skills were honed by crisscrossing Pennsylvania, sometimes working grueling 12- and 15-hour days to win hard-fought contests.

"He was relentless. He knew how big and diverse the state was and that no matter how much he did in one county there were 66 other counties to get to," Nicholas said. "At the end of the day, he just wanted it more than anybody else."

Specter, who served on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and had chaired the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, used his political clout to propel projects and causes he believed in, whether it was the Schuylkill River Park Connector Bridge in Center City or medical research at the National Institutes of Health.

"I have no doubt that because of Arlen Specter's efforts, my daughter is now 11 years old, going on 22," said Sestak, whose daughter, Alex, is a brain-cancer survivor. "That's who Arlen Specter is to me. He actually did something for Americans."

In retirement, Specter became an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, teaching a course on the relationship between Congress and the Supreme Court.

Specter was born in Wichita, Kan., to Harry Specter, a native of Ukraine, and the former Lillie Shanin. The family moved to Russell, Kan., where Specter graduated from Russell High School in 1947. Bob Dole had graduated from the high school in 1941.

Specter first attended the University of Oklahoma, then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied international relations and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1951.

The family moved to Philadelphia when his sister, Shirley, became of marriageable age and there were no eligible Jewish men in Russell.

Specter served stateside in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations from 1951 to 1953, and attained the rank of second lieutenant.

He married the former Joan Levy in 1953. She was elected to an at-large seat on Philadelphia City Council in 1979. She served four terms until she was defeated for re-election in 1995 by Frank Rizzo, son of the late police commissioner and mayor.

The Specters lived in East Falls. They had two sons, Shanin and Steve, and four grandchildren.

In February, Gov. Corbett signed off on a $1.9 million state grant for an Arlen Specter library at Philadelphia University that will house his papers and memorabilia.

Specter's funeral will be open to the public and held at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley at noon on Tuesday. Burial will 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.


Contact John F. Morrison at morrisj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5573

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