'He was smart, tough and loved to serve'
Arlen Specter is being remembered fondly by some local people who worked with him during a professional career that lasted about a half-century.
Specter, who served Pennsylvania for an unprecedented five terms in the U.S. Senate, died Sunday at his home in East Falls after a long battle with cancer. He was 82.
After a funeral on Tuesday, he was buried in Shalom Memorial Park in Huntingdon Valley.
“Arlen was like an older brother. I remained friends with the senator throughout his career. It was forty-seven years of friendship,” said former state Sen. Bob Rovner, who worked under Specter when he was district attorney. “He helped so many Pennsylvanians, Republicans and Democrats. He voted independently. He was not a rubber stamp.”
When Specter enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, his family relocated from Kansas to Philadelphia. The family lived in a rowhouse at 1213 Stirling St. in Oxford Circle.
Specter first gained prominence as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which was investigating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He would go on to co-author the controversial “single bullet theory,” which claimed that Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally, who survived, were wounded by the same bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald and that there was no second gunman.
In 1965, Democrat-turned-Republican Specter defeated incumbent James Crumlish to become Philadelphia district attorney. He lost a close race to Mayor Jim Tate in 1967, but was re-elected district attorney in ’69. In 1973, he lost the DA’s office to Emmett Fitzpatrick.
More losses followed in 1976 (to John Heinz in the Republican U.S. Senate primary) and ’78 (to Dick Thornburgh in the primary for governor).
In 1980, he defeated former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty to win a Senate seat. He was a moderate, angering conservatives by opposing Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.
In 1991, liberals were enraged with his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, who made claims of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Specter sought the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, but received little support. He dropped out in November 1995 and endorsed Sen. Bob Dole, who was from his hometown of Russell, Kan.
In 1999, he went out on his own to vote “not proven” after President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives.
By 2009, it was clear that Specter was going to lose the Republican primary the following year to Pat Toomey. So, he switched to the Democratic Party and sought a sixth term. Joe Sestak ended Specter’s political career in the primary thanks in large part to a commercial showing Specter saying, “My change in party will enable me to get re-elected.”
“He was a politician and elected official who took his job very seriously,” said Al Taubenberger, who knew Specter in his political roles and as president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. “He was always available to discuss issues, whether you agreed with him or not. He knew how important compromise was to American democracy.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Borski, who served from 1983 to 2002, recalls working with Specter on issues such as deepening the Port of Philadelphia, encouraging development along the North Delaware Avenue riverfront, cleaning up environmental hazards at the old Frankford Arsenal to make it appealing to private developers and saving jobs at the Navy depot on Robbins Avenue in Lawndale and the Naval Shipyard in South Philadelphia.
“He was one of the last of the so-called moderates in the Republican Party and, quite frankly, there aren’t that many left on the Democratic side,” Borski said. “He was smart, tough and loved to serve. He had the clout and didn’t hesitate to use that power for Pennsylvania. He fought for us all the time and made a lot of tough votes throughout his career.” ••