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PHILADELPHIA — Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a crafty Republican moderate who became a crucial Democratic vote and played a central role in political battles including the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, and the passage of health care reform, died Sunday. He was 82.
Mr. Specter served five terms as a Republican U.S. senator, the longest of any Pennsylvanian, switching to the Democratic Party in 2009, ensuring passage of President Obama’s health care law.
But Pennsylvania Democrats never accepted him as one of their own and he was defeated in the party’s 2010 Senate primary. During Mr. Specter’s decades in public office, he served on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees, shaping the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court and funneling billions toward federal cancer research. His influence spilled far beyond the Senate chamber.
He was a key figure in the 1964 Warren Commission investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a 1996 presidential candidate who shared a Kansas hometown with Senate Majority leader Bob Dole. Mr. Specter, who fought a cascade of serious illnesses during the last two decades, including open-heart surgery, a brain tumor, and bouts with lymphatic cancers, died at his home near Philadelphia of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son, Shanin, said.
Possessed with a razor-sharp legal mind, searing ambition, and boundless energy, the former Philadelphia prosecutor was an avid player in take-no-prisoners Senate politics. He reveled in his role as man in the middle of the action rather than in the margins, even while he struggled to remain one of the last of the Republican Party’s centrists.
While he said it was all in service of bipartisanship, his colleagues were often infuriated by his triangulating. Mr. Specter “is always there when we don’t need him,” complained Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a book written before Mr. Specter became a Democrat in 2009 and provided a vote for health care reform that Mr. Reid very much needed.
In a statement Sunday, Mr. Obama said Mr. Specter “was always a fighter. 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.”
Mr. Specter’s career was always a high-wire act. During his first years in the Senate, he earned a reputation as an incorrigible publicity hound — Captain Kangaroo and porn star Linda Lovelace were among the witnesses at his hearings — and he infuriated the Reagan White House by voting frequently with Democrats, prompting the president to withhold his endorsement in the 1986 Republican Senate primary.
As the GOP moved to the right, Mr. Specter’s isolation increased. Shunned by Republicans when he voted for the stimulus package, he finally changed parties, but it was too late: The economy was terrible and voters were turning against all incumbents. He lost to former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, who in turn lost to former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican, in the general election.
In 1987, Mr. Specter enraged Republicans with his close questioning of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and his claim that Mr. Bork was “a throwback,” effectively scuttled the nomination.
In 1991, Mr. Specter appeared to be trying to make amends with the GOP when he aggressively questioned Oklahoma University law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when the two worked for the federal government in the 1980s.
It was a major political miscalculation: when Mr. Specter charged Ms. Hill with “flat-out perjury,” former feminist supporters erupted in fury and recruited a woman candidate, Lynn Yeakel, to run against him in the 1992 election.
At one point he was 15 points behind, in such dire shape that Shanin, who ran his campaign, warned him, “If you’re real lucky and she makes lots of mistakes, you might win.”
Win Mr. Specter did, running a flawless, intensely negative campaign against Ms. Yeakel — distancing himself from Republican President George H.W. Bush and reminding voters of his record of health care, civil rights, abortion rights, and anti-crime initiatives. Outspending Ms. Yeakel by 2-to-1, Mr. Specter won by fewer than 200,000 votes.
In tributes that came in Sunday following news of his death, colleagues and opponents alike credited a hard fighter who got things done.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said Mr. Specter “was a statesman and a problem solver who was able to work with Democrats and Republicans in the best interest of our commonwealth and our country.”
Mr. Toomey, who won the seat after Mr. Specter was defeated in the 2010 primary, called him “a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination” who “dedicated his life to public service and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His impact on our state and public policy will not be forgotten.”
Because Mr. Specter’s base included pragmatic Democrats mindful of his clout on Capitol Hill and liberal, pro-choice Republicans from the suburbs of Philadelphia, he could spurn the overtures of Republican presidents to vote as he pleased and then brag to constituents about his unwillingness to toe the party line.
Ever the poker player, he often waited until the very last minute to reveal a position: during Mr. Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, he confounded observers when he said he believed the president had not received a fair trial, cited Scottish law and, instead of voting yes or no, voted “not proven.”
Born in Wichita, Kan., on Feb. 12, 1930, Mr. Specter was the son of Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine.
At the height of the Great Depression, he would rise at 5 a.m. every morning to help his father, a peddler, sell cantaloupes, with his elder sister, Shirley.
Later, when they moved to Russell, Kansas — birthplace of Mr. Specter’s future Senate colleague Mr. Dole — Harry Specter bought a junk yard and his son cut up oil derricks and pipelines for scrap, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. They were the only Jews in town. That may have contributed to Mr. Specter’s toughness.
“I didn’t get beat up because I fought back,” he said.
The family eventually made its way to Philadelphia. An exceptionally bright student, Mr. Specter earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1956, he joined the prestigious Philadelphia law firm of Dechert, Price & Rhoads (now Dechert LLP).
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. Post-Gazette politics editor James O’Toole contributed to this report.
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