Richard Schweiker may just turn out to be the maverick of the new Reagan administration at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services. But he doesn't have the conservative wing of the Grand Old Party nearly as anxious now as it was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan startled Republicans and Democrats alike by announcing that if he won the presidential nomination he would chose Senator Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker agreed to join the Reagan team then, over the outcries of his liberal colleagues.
Despite his apparent shift to more political conservatism in the past four years, what remains to be seen is where his loyalty will be greatest -- to Reagan or to social causes. Schweiker's record for independent thinking shows he was an early critic of the Vietnam war and opposed President Nixon's controversial nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the US Supreme Court. Moreover, as the former ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, he led almost a one- man Republican crusade for health-research legislation.
Friends and associates say he can still be counted on to be an advocate for health and social programs.
Schweiker is a native of Norristown, Pa., a small, mostly blue-collar city 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia where he and Drew Lewis, Reagan's transportation secretary-designate, were boyhood friends. The former two-term senator, his wife Claire, and their five Children have most recently lived in an old farmhouse outside Norristown. In fact, he had planned to be a gentleman farmer -- after chosing not to seek reelection last year -- until Reagan asked him to take a post in the new administration.
Once committed to a task, say associates, Schweiker immerses himself totally in his work. He almost always takes work home with him, but tries to make sure that his private life is not neglected.
Schweiker was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 1960. Eight years later he moved on to the Senate, winning by a landslide despite the fact that the Democrats handily took Pennsylvania in the presidential election.
Bucking mainstream Republican Party thinking has proved to be an asset for him -- at least up to now.