Longtime GOP Senate moderate Arlen Specter bucked his party
A political moderate, Arlen Specter was swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980. But the former Democrat was not shy about bucking fellow Republicans.
(Page 2 of 2)
Despite his tireless campaigning, Specter's irascible independence caught up with him in 2004. Specter barely survived a GOP primary challenge by Toomey by 17,000 votes of more than 1.4 million cast. He went on to easily win the general election with the help of organized labor, a traditionally Democratic constituency.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Specter startled fellow senators in April 2009 when he announced he was switching to the Democratic side, saying he found himself "increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy." Earlier in the year, he had been one of only three Republicans in Congress – and the only one facing re-election in 2010 – who voted for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill.
He also said he had concluded that his chance of defeating a GOP challenger in the 2010 party primary was bleak. But he said the Democrats couldn't count on him to be "an automatic 60th vote" to give the party a filibuster-proof majority.
Specter outspent Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral, but Sestak attacked him as a political opportunist who switched parties to save his job. A memorable campaign ad used Specter's own words against him: "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected."
Intellectual and stubborn, Specter played squash nearly every day into his mid-70s and liked to unwind with a martini or two at night. He took the lead on a wide spectrum of issues and was no stranger to controversy.
Born in Wichita, Kan., on Feb. 12, 1930, Specter spent summers toiling in his father's junkyard in Russell, Kan., where he knew another future senator – Bob Dole. The junkyard thrived during World War II, allowing Specter's father to send his four children to college.
Specter left Kansas for college in 1947 because the University of Kansas, where his best friends were headed, did not have Jewish fraternities. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and Yale law school in 1956. He served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1953.
Friends say his childhood circumstances made him determined, tough and independent-minded. Specter considered his father's triumphs the embodiment of the American dream, a fulfillment that friends say drove him to a career in public life.
He entered politics as a Democrat in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, when he was an assistant district attorney who sent six Teamsters officials to jail for union corruption.
After working on the Warren Commission, he returned to Philadelphia and challenged his boss, James Crumlish, for district attorney in 1965. Specter ran as a Republican and was derided by Crumlish as "Benedict Arlen." But Crumlish lost to his protégé by 36,000 votes.
It was to be the last time until 1980 that Specter would win an election to higher office, despite three attempts – a 1967 bid for Philadelphia mayor, a 1976 loss to John Heinz for Senate, and a 1978 defeat by Dick Thornburgh for governor.
Specter lost re-election as district attorney in 1973 and went into private practice. Among his most notorious clients as a private attorney was Ira Einhorn, a Philadelphia counterculture celebrity who killed his girlfriend in 1977.
After leaving the Senate in January 2011, the University of Pennsylvania Law School announced Specter would teach a course about Congress' relationship with the Supreme Court, and Maryland Public Television launched a political-affairs show hosted by the former senator.