On a bright June day in 1993 Gov. Robert P. Casey was undergoing an operation for a rare heart/liver transplant while U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter was undergoing brain surgery.
Lt. Gov. Mark Singel remarked upon this striking occurrence as he took the reins as Pennsylvania’s first and only acting governor.
Both Casey and Specter survived their operations and returned to public office. They had already built reputations as survivors in Pennsylvania politics and this solidified it.
The two men rose to statewide political prominence at the same time in the mid-1960s when TV-generated name recognition became the key to electoral victory in a large and diverse state like Pennsylvania.
Specter was seen as a comer early on.
“The election of famed investigator Arlen Specter as (Philadelphia) District Attorney on the Republican ticket was a triumph for a vigorous new generation that had moved into the seats of power in the victory-starved G.O.P. organization,” wrote U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott, R-Pa. in “Come to the Party”, his political autobiography which also searched for signs of life for the GOP after the 1964 Goldwater debacle.
During this period when the ability of political bosses and party endorsements to make or break candidates was fading away, there was a prevailing theory that a candidate needed to run several times in statewide races in Pennsylvania before grabbing the brass ring.
Casey made it on his fourth run for governor; Specter on his third statewide race.
Earnest and wonkish, Specter on his first statewide race for a U.S. Senate GOP nomination in 1976 outlined his position on oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency – a hot issue in Washington – to reporters at a press conference in Sharon, Pa.
But CIA oversight wasn’t an issue that swayed voters. Telegenic John Heinz won the nomination and the election that year.
Specter made a bid for the GOP nomination for governor in 1978, but Dick Thornburgh won the prize with the vote split among several Philly area candidates.
Once he was elected to the Senate in 1980 as part of the Reagan landslide, Specter bucked the odds and stayed there for thirty years.
Pennsylvania voters have had a track record in the postwar years of tossing out U.S. senators. Specter, although facing tough challenges in 1992 and 2004 prevailed, and resembled one of those legendary southern senators who stayed on and reaped the benefits of seniority. Along the way he survived more health crises and wrote about them as a way to help others.
Specter was on borrowed time with a GOP party moving rightward as his narrow win over primary challenger Pat Toomey demonstrated in 2004. Specter switched to the Democratic Party in 2009 to try a different route to reelection for a fifth time and finally in 2010 joined the ranks of Pennsylvania senators denied reelection.
He didn’t voluntary retire as Scott did in 1976 after 18 years in the Senate or groom a successor, but Specter who died Oct. 14 at 82 had already demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a survivor in more than one arena. — Robert Swift
Harrisburg Bureau Chief for Times-Shamrock Newspapers