Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Senator Arlen Specter

Last Tuesday, the Democrats in the Pennsylvania buried Senator Arlen Specter's hopes to compete as a Democratic Senator for his reelection bid in November, 2010. By many counts the 80 year-old senator was a Houdini of Pennsylvania politics. He was twice a survivor of cancer and twice a survivor of such close political calls. His senatorial career began in the flush of the Reagan Revolution in 1980 and will come to a close after three decades in the Tea Party era. He has been a relentless interrogator of prospective judges and justices, a force for medical research, and a champion earmarker for his state. He promoted plurality and is considered responsible for an influx of women into the upper chamber.

In his long senatorial career (before switching to the Democratic Party in 2009 in the Obama era), a glorious one, which I must add, he came at odds with his conservative Republican party. He was more conservative than an average Democrat but more liberal and moderate than most Republicans. Thus, when it came to voting, he was unpredictable; he was not an ideological demagogue voting on the party line. His prosecutorial grilling of Robert Bork, whom Ronald Reagan nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987, was key to Bork's defeat. Four years later, Specter defended Clarence Thomas -- nominated by another Republican president, George H.W. Bush -- as fiercely as he had fought Bork. He shifted his alignments depending on the issue and his analysis of it. His neutral stance, away from nasty party-line politics, was able to gravitate many Democrats and independents who had always considered him liberal and independent enough to vote for and send to the Capitol House. In the post-9/11 era, Specter examined Bush's warrantless wiretapping program in hearings and championed limits on executive power.

Many voters may not know that Specter started as a registered Democrat who ran for Philadelphia district attorney as a Republican in 1964, and came full circle back to the Democratic Party in 2009. In 2009, when he reinforced his new Democratic credentials, he voted 96 percent of the time with President Barack Obama. However, between 2001 and 2005, as a Republican senator he was very loyal to George W. Bush, voting with him 85 percent to 89 percent of the time.

Specter was a brilliant lawyer who graduated from the Ivy League school U Penn in 1951, majoring in International Relations. During the Korean War, he served as an Air Force officer. In 1956, he graduated from the Yale Law School and joined the Pennsylvania Bar. Later he became an aide to the Warren Commission in the 1960s, investing JFK's assassination. He came up with the single-bullet theory -- that a lone gunman had killed President John F. Kennedy. In 1976, Specter ran in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania and was defeated by John Heinz. In 1978, he was defeated in the primary for Governor of Pennsylvania by Dick Thornburgh. In 1980, he ran for the Senatorial election, and won, representing the state of Pennsylvania, a privilege and honor that he proudly and dutifully held for the next 30 years by winning four more times (1986, 1992, 1998 and 2004).

Senator Specter served longer than any U.S. senator in Pennsylvania history, probably delivering more money to more organizations in 30 years than any human being from this state. He was a senior ranking member in the Senate. No matter who wins the November senator race between Congressman Joe Sestak (Democrat) and Pat Toomey (Republican), the winner would be a junior Senator on the Senate floor. Thus, Senator Specter's loss in the Democratic senate primary is a loss to the state of Pennsylvania. For a foreseeable future, no Senator from the state of Pennsylvania would be able to do what Senator Specter had done for the state. He will be sorely missed by most Pennsylvanians. As he retires from the Senate at the end of this year, I wish him all the best.

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