Specter `pleased and proud' to be Democrat

June 6, 2009 1:07:25 PM PDT
Sen. Arlen Specter told Pennsylvania's Democratic leaders Saturday he's "pleased and proud" to be back in the party he left shortly after launching his political career more than four decades ago. "I'm no longer a Republican in name only. I'm again a Democrat," the fifth term senator said in an introductory speech to the Democratic State Committee at a downtown hotel.

Specter's speech capped two days of speechmaking and socializing in which the atmosphere of party unity that Gov. Ed Rendell and state party Chairman T.J. Rooney sought was clouded only by a small union rally and low-key campaigning by prospective Specter challengers in the 2010 primary.

Specter, 79, said his immigrant parents were FDR Democrats, and that he was a JFK Democrat. He said he stayed in the party until after he won his first elective office - Philadelphia district attorney - on the Republican ticket in 1965 and he enrolled in the GOP after the general election.

In a speech punctuated frequently by applause, he ticked off a list of issues - increases in the minimum wage, abortion rights, environmental protection, stem-cell research - on which he has voted with the Democrats even though he was a Republican.

"It is really my independence that has made me strong, made me better able to represent Pennsylvania, to deliver for Pennsylvania and strong enough to come back to the party," he said.

At a Friday night dinner honoring the late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, Rendell said Specter "has voted and acted to support the constituencies that we care about" during his 29 years in the Senate. He said the senator showed courage in casting one of three GOP votes for the $787 economic stimulus package.

"He cast the vote knowing that it would put his political career in peril," the governor said.

At an AFL-CIO rally outside the hotel Saturday morning, Specter drew cheers and scattered catcalls when he told the crowd of more than 200 people that he is working with organized labor to try to reach a compromise on a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions.

"I'm committed to find an answer which will satisfy you," he told the crowd.

Specter had publicly opposed the measure before switching to the Democratic Party in April.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George reminded the demonstrators that Specter has often been on their side on many issues important to labor.

"Over the years we've had our ups and downs with Arlen Specter, but I have to tell you, on a lot of bread and butter issues (important) to organized labor ... he was there," George said.

On both days, second-term U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who has said he is likely to challenge Specter for the nomination, quietly mingled with state committee members to make his case.

Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who is the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to the House, said he is impressed but not deterred by Specter's endorsements from President Barack Obama, Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey.

"It doesn't mean you can't prevail in the end," he said. Joe Hoeffel, the former congressman who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee against Specter in 2004 and who is among Sestak's supporters, said many Democrats find Specter's switch disorienting.

"After spending 30 years campaigning against our candidates, he now wants to help. And after spending eight years supporting the Bush legacy, he now hopes that the Democrats will support him in 2010," said Hoeffel, now a Montgomery County commissioner.

If Specter is re-elected, he will be 80 when he is sworn in for a sixth six-year term.

His standing in an increasingly conservative GOP slipped sharply when he cast one of only three Republican votes for the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Determined to stay in the Senate but faced with polls that showed conservative Republican Pat Toomey likely to beat him in the 2010 primary, Specter switched parties on April 28.

Specter narrowly survived a 2004 challenge by Toomey, then a congressman from northeast Pennsylvania, winning by barely 17,000 votes out of 1 million cast.

Specter's switch delighted national and state Democratic leaders because it underscored ideological divisions within the Republican Party and moved Democrats to within one vote of the 60 they need to overcome filibusters and enact Obama's legislative agenda.

Follow Action News on Twitter

Get Action News on your website

Follow Action News on Facebook

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.


Load Comments