Twenty years ago this month, Pennsylvania was in the midst of political change the likes of which it hadn’t seen in decades. Bob Casey had won reelection to his second term as governor by more than a million votes the year before and faced a huge state deficit caused by the ravages of the recession. He and the legislature eventually agreed to raise the state’s income tax for the first time since the recession of 1982-83 to cover a huge deficit. Casey also stunned Pennsylvanians by announcing in July that he suffered from a rare life threatening disease—familial amyloidosis. The governor would undergo an extraordinary heart-liver transplant in 1993, serve out his term, and courageously fight the disease that would take his life in 2000.
That April the residents of the state already had been shocked when U.S. Senator John Heinz tragically died in an airplane/helicopter crash. Gov. Casey appointed his Secretary of Labor and Industry, Harris Wofford, as his replacement. Though Wofford had considerable national experience as an advisor to John F. Kennedy and one of the founders of the Peace Corp, he was not considered a strong statewide candidate. That prompted former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh to resign as Reagan’s attorney general to seek election in the fall to fill out the term. In an upset that stunned the nation, Wofford defeated Thornburgh, in a nationally observed contest that presaged the 1992 presidential campaign. Wofford’s campaign was brilliantly run by James Carville and Pau Begala, who used the economic and healthcare arguments that would elect Bill Clinton.
Powerhouse Congressman Bill Gray, a Philadelphia Democrat, who was House majority whip, announced in June that he would not seek reelection. He resigned to become head of the United Negro College Fund. Gray, like his father and grandfather, was pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church and had been elected to Congress in 1978. At the time of his departure, he had become the highest-ranking African American member of Congress and, as a former chair of the Budget Committee, one of the most powerful members of Congress.
In July, Frank L. Rizzo died of a heart attack. Rizzo, a former two term mayor with strong supporters and detractors had changed his party and won the Republican nomination for mayor in Philadelphia in May. Rizzo’s primary opponent was Ron Castille, who ultimately became chief justice of the state Supreme Court. His Democratic opponent was Ed Rendell, a former two-term District Attorney. Rizzo’s death made Rendell’s victory over his replacement Joseph Egan a cakewalk. It jump started Rendell’s political career after he had lost both a gubernatorial primary to Bob Casey in 1986 and a mayoral primary to incumbent mayor Wilson Goode in 1987—a career culminating in his election to two terms as governor of the state.
Finally, in July, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was rushed to the hospital with chest pains that initially were thought to be a heart attack. Fortunately the medical diagnosis turned out to be a case of indigestion. Specter would beat back far more serious health care problems in his life and win reelection in 1992 and two more times until losing in 2010 to Joe Sestak after changing his party. Specter would be the longest serving and most influential senator in the history of the state.
Certainly, 1991 was a momentous year in the politics of Pennsylvania with huge political implications for the state and the nation. Rarely have so many events in such a short period of time changed the course of history.
Professor of Public Affairs, Franklin & Marshall College; and Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and the Franklin & Marshall College Poll