WASHINGTON – Former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most durable political figures who during three decades in the Senate became known for his command of constitutional law, died of cancer on Sunday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 82.
The death was confirmed by Scott Hoeflich, Sen. Specter’s former chief of staff.
Sen. Specter was long a voice of Republican moderation, but he handed Democrats a supermajority in the Senate by switching parties in 2009. He lost the Democratic primary the next year in an anti-incumbency movement that swept many veteran politicians from office. He had also exposed himself to charges of political opportunism by changing his party allegiance.
As a young Philadelphia prosecutor, he first gained national attention as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, which investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was the chief architect of the commission’s controversial single-bullet theory, which held that the same bullet that killed Kennedy also wounded then-Texas Gov. John Connally.
Sen. Specter parlayed the exposure he received on the commission into a political career, first as a combative and outspoken Philadelphia district attorney and then as a five-term U.S. senator.
Arlen Specter was always a fighter, President Obama said in a statement Sunday. From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.
Arriving on Capitol Hill in 1981, Specter became a dominant force during the Judiciary Committee’s rancorous Supreme Court nomination battles. More than anyone else, he helped defeat conservative nominee Robert Bork in 1987, and his aggressive questioning of law professor Anita Hill four years later – he accused her of flat-out perjury – helped secure Clarence Thomas’s confirmation.
Specter was respected for his well-prepared and persuasive arguments that were rooted in the law rather than in political expediency. He sided with liberals on some divisive issues and with conservatives on others, leaving him with little support on either end of the spectrum.
He consistently drew challenges from the left and the right in his centrist state, and his career was marked by narrow victories. I had a rocky road getting here, he once said, and I’m going to do my damnedest to stay here.
In 2009, Specter was one of three Republicans who negotiated with Senate Democrats over President Obama’s economic stimulus bill, but his vote for the $787 billion measure left him politically vulnerable among Pennsylvania’s unpredictable electorate.
I believe that my duty is to follow my conscience and vote what I think is in the best interest of the country, and the political risks will have to abide, Specter said at the time.
Acknowledging that he could not win his 2010 re-election battle against Republican primary challenger Patrick Toomey, the former head of the conservative Club for Growth, Specter switched parties.
He became the 60th Democratic senator, giving Obama’s party a filibuster-proof majority. But he immediately drew a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, whose run from the left forced Sen. Specter to assert liberal positions on issues such as health-care reform.
Specter was the rare lawmaker who catered to the interests of his state while also playing a starring – and often controversial – role in fractious debates over important national issues.
Arlen Specter may be the most masterful politician in the history of this state, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He won’t be outworked, he won’t be outhustled, and he understands his state better than any other politician in modern history.