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Changed Man

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PHOTO: NEAL SANTOS
  • Photo: Neal Santos

It's Arlen Specter's birthday, and he's trudging through the snow.

When you're an 80-year-old two-time cancer survivor, maybe there's something you'd rather be doing on your birthday. But when you're a 29-year U.S. senator in the fight of your political life, you don't have much choice.

It's Friday, Feb. 12, and Philadelphia is in the midst of a record-breaking stretch of blizzards. Specter is en route to a downtown fundraiser for his re-election campaign, where some of the city's most prominent gay leaders wait, checks in hand. In a week when 45 inches of snow blanketed the region, traversing Center City by car had proven untenable -- by contrast, it made breaking a Senate filibuster look easy.

"The congestion was terrible," Specter would later recall. "We weren't going anywhere, so I got on my rover shoes and walked 10 blocks in the snow."

A 45-year Republican scourge, trekking through knee-deep snow and ice to get money from gay people.

Of course, for Arlen Specter, it's not all that unusual. Despite his long affiliation with the less-than-gay-friendly GOP, Specter's relationship with the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia goes back to his days as a city prosecutor in the 1960s, when he went after law enforcement officials for shaking down gay men in bars and theaters.

"He's got a 40-plus-year record on gay rights," says Mark Segal, a longtime activist and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News.

The difference, now, is that Specter is a Democrat.

Convinced by polling data that there was no way he could win a primary in the rightward-tilting GOP, especially after he voted for President Obama's economic stimulus package, Specter shook the political world last April by jumping the aisle -- making only the feeblest attempt to deny that what he was doing boiled down to anything more than bald-faced self-preservation. Saying "the prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak," Specter told reporters in Washington that he was "not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, not prepared to have that record decided by that jury."

Never mind that "that jury" had delivered a positive verdict five other times over three decades. Like many politicians -- and arguably more so -- Specter's personal identity seems intrinsically tied to his job as an elected official, and he's not giving that up just because Republicans who nominated him so many times before don't want to do it again.

Of course, it's boilerplate for politicians who switch parties to lament that they're not leaving their party, but that their party has left them. In Specter's case, that has the benefit of being true.

The movement conservatism that dominates today's GOP -- which sometimes seems like the bastard child of Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and Jerry Falwell, with its obsession with bedroom politics and unbending obstinacy on issues like health care -- is no home for Arlen Specter, a man who doomed his own presidential ambitions 15 years ago by attacking the intolerance of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. His party cannot be the party of Sarah Palin -- although he did endorse her and John McCain's campaign in 2008.

Therein lies the rub: As much as Specter evidently disdained the fundamentalist, populist elements of his former party's base, he tolerated them, and perhaps even catered to them on this or that issue, so long as it was in his interest to do so. But the second it became clear that the base would no longer tolerate him, he abandoned ship.

He is, after all, a survivor.

So today, Specter is courting Democratic voters and liberal constituencies more proactively, more earnestly and more publicly than he's ever had to before. He woos progressive bloggers on conference calls. He traverses the state talking to Democratic party leaders. He appears at gatherings of liberal activists. He goes on television to defend Obama, the same man he campaigned against just 18 short months ago.

All the while, he leverages relationships he's built with Democrats over the last half-century, relationships that were always rooted in his willingness to break with GOP orthodoxy on certain issues, and relationships that only strengthen as Specter moves further and further to the left. Still, his seeming willingness to change his allegiances and positions on a dime leaves some in his new party wondering, bluntly:

How the hell can we trust this guy?

"People ask me a lot of pointed questions," Specter says. "I'm willing to face the music."

Arlen Specter has changed his stance so many times on so many issues it's hard to keep track. He was adamantly against switching parties before he did exactly that. He said he wouldn't be a "loyal" Democratic vote, and then went on to vote with his new party more than 85 percent of the time. He was against a public option for health care, but then he was for it. He was against using the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation to pass health care reform, and then he said it should be used. He was against even permitting a vote on a major labor-law reform called the Employee Free Choice Act, and now he wants a compromise. He opposed repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and now he wants it gone.

It's dizzying. And two months before they get to vote on him in a primary for the first time, at least some Democrats are tired of the act.

"He's all over the place at this point," says Joe Ferraro, a Huffington Post blogger who lives near Valley Forge. "Specter's showing up where the votes are. If he saw 15 votes on the other side, he would walk over there."

Roger Lund, who chairs the local Democratic Party in Adams County, in the Gettysburg area, echoes the sentiment: "This is opportunism, plain and simple, the way he's playing the party. I can't bring myself to forget his past."

That past includes a laundry list of items offensive to progressive Democrats. His brutal -- and infamous -- questioning of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas (in which, as can now be seen on YouTube, he boasted engineering a "flat-out demolition of her credibility"). His vote in favor of President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. His vote authorizing the Iraq war. His campaigning for the likes of Rick Santorum and, more recently, Sarah Palin.

It's part of the reason that when Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell (Specter's protégé in the District Attorney's Office) and much of the party establishment quickly lined up behind Specter last year, a little-known, second-term congressman from the suburbs went another route. For months, Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral, has attacked Specter at every turn as an opportunist who will do anything to keep his job and who can't be trusted -- "a flight risk," as he's fond of saying.

The result is that, months after fleeing a Republican primary he couldn't win, Specter faces a Democratic primary that's not much easier. Although polls show him holding double-digit leads over Sestak, those same surveys show barely one-quarter of the state's voters think Specter deserves re-election. In fact, most polls have him and Sestak behind likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey. When everyone knows you already and still doesn't like you, it's tough to change their mind, even with millions of dollars worth of TV ads -- especially in one of the most fiercely anti-incumbent climates in recent history.

"This is by far the most serious challenge he's ever faced," says G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College who's followed Specter's career. "He has a national environment he has to run against that's lethal."

Despite all that, there's reason to think Specter can do what he's always done: survive. Democrats have long liked him more than Republicans -- a couple of days before his party-switch, he was at a benefit thrown by some of the highest-profile Democratic fundraisers in the region. Only 22 percent of Democrats say Specter's party-switch makes them less likely to support him, according to a January Franklin & Marshall poll.

Other than a brief presidential bid in 1995 that went nowhere, Arlen Specter hasn't lost an election in three decades. He's seen his political obituary written more than once -- and time and again, he's defied the odds.

"No one -- no one -- likes to count out Arlen Specter," says one Democrat working against him.

The walls of Arlen Specter's Washington office are lined with the vast collection of photos that comes with 45 years in politics. They pepper the walls of the lobby, a conference room and his personal office. They overflow onto the ground where there's no more space on the walls. There he is, a barely recognizable boyish face with Richard Nixon. An elder senator with Dick Cheney. Standing with Pennsylvania junior Sen. Bob Casey in 2007, on Casey's first day in the Senate. Appearing with Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Gathering with Bill and Hillary Clinton. A young man with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The photos speak to a life filled with relationships, few of which ever sour even as he trapezes between both ends of the political spectrum. They're hung in no discernible order, appropriate for a man whose political identity has always been somewhat ambiguous. His back office overlooks the Supreme Court building, something Specter clearly enjoys -- few things get the usually soft-spoken senator excited like a good debate on Constitutional law.

And he is a lawyer.

For every issue on which he's hemmed and hawed, for every policy on which he's flipped then flopped, Specter has a nuanced, lawyerly explanation for it. That time he opposed the public option on Meet the Press last spring, only to change his mind shortly after? No, you see, he was talking about the Clinton-style public option from the 1990s, not the "carefully worded" public option designed by Sen. Chuck Schumer last year.

"Those interview shows are kind of tough when they ask you a whole series of questions rat-a-tat-tat and you get an answer without any opportunity to elaborate," Specter says.

And for every issue on which people will say he's been too conservative -- or too liberal -- he's got something ready to argue his bona fides from the other side. His stump speech to Democrats is replete with them: his support of abortion rights and stem cell research, his decisive opposition to the Supreme Court confirmation of Robert Bork, his votes to increase the minimum wage and support equal pay for women in the workplace, and so on.

He rarely appears before Democratic audiences without reminding them that, way back in the 1960s, he was a Democrat first, before winning an election for District Attorney as a Republican.

"You can come back home," he says.

When Specter switched parties in April 2009, Republicans seeking to do political damage control flooded the airwaves and argued that he had always been a liberal anyway. That's not really true. Nor is it true when Specter often tells audiences in his new party that he voted more with Democrats than with Republicans even while he was in the GOP.

Specter's 29-year voting record in the Senate by and large supports the idea that he has never been a strong partisan. As a Republican, he typically voted with his party between 60 percent and 70 percent of the time, depending on the year. Between 1989 and 2008, the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave him an average "liberal quotient" of 45 percent -- meaning, in essence, that he voted ADA's way on major issues slightly less than half the time. That's not exactly Dennis Kucinich, but neither is it Tom Coburn.

Specter's recent bout of pro-Democratic votes and positioning -- for the stimulus, against DOMA, for the public option -- notwithstanding, he still ranks among the Democratic caucus's most conservative members. Last month, for instance, National Journal released its ideological Senate rankings for 2009, a year in which Specter divided his partisan loyalties: The magazine rated Specter the Senate's 56th most liberal senator. That is, for perspective, one notch to the left of Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, and a smidge to the right of Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman.

Of course, the scorecard changes depending on who's counting the votes, but the point remains the same: Specter is, and has always been, a moderate who often flaunts his moderation. Sure, he voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. He voted for the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war. But he also incensed conservatives by blocking Bork's appointment. He decried the "intolerant right" and "religious extremists" in 1994. During his short-lived presidential campaign in 1995, he denounced the social conservatism of Pat Buchanan, which set the stage for his campaign's quick demise. (He came in dead last in the 1995 Iowa straw poll, far behind such also-rans as Morry Taylor.) He broke with the GOP to vote for increased regulation of HMOs in 2000, and cast the filibuster-breaking vote for President Obama's stimulus in 2009.

Over the last three decades, Specter's refusal to define himself in strict ideological terms has helped him do something no other Pennsylvanian has ever done -- win five consecutive Senate elections. It wasn't always a smooth ride: He eked out slim victories in the 1980 and 1992 general elections. But as social conservatism took hold of the GOP, and Northeastern Rockefeller Republicans became an endangered species, Specter's biggest problem was no longer the Democrats, among whom he had high marks.

It was the right. In 2004, Specter faced a tough Republican primary against U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. Toomey, with the backing of the conservative base, leveled that most devastating of charges: Liberal.

Specter pushed back.

I see myself voting on each individual issue, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer that March.

And thanks in part to last-minute campaigning by then-President Bush, who called him "tough and principled," and an endorsement from fellow Sen. Rick Santorum, Specter survived, edging Toomey by 17,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast. (He easily defeated Democratic candidate Joe Hoeffel that November.)

After his pro-stimulus vote in early 2009 -- "It is imperative," he said at the time, "that we do something very, very substantial" -- Toomey began making noise about yet another primary challenge. Specter could read the tea leaves.

Now on the other side of the aisle, Specter is taking fire from his left flank. And the arguments being made for his re-election, though pitched to a different audience, are eerily similar: He knows how Washington works, he can bring home the bacon, he can bring people together. "Seniority counts," the mantra goes.

Arlen Specter is a tough guy to read, soft-spoken and earnest-sounding, but cool and calculated, with emotions that aren't often betrayed -- though he's certainly known for flashes of anger.

He sits for an interview in his Washington office on an evening in early February, as yet another snowstorm prepares to shut down the Northeast. His suit jacket off before heading back to the Senate floor, he wears a light red, striped shirt and red tie that hangs gently on a frame kept lean by frequent games of squash at an upscale Center City gym.

There's really only one question: "Why should anyone trust you?"

For a fleeting second, if only a second, you see a hint of sadness in the back of his eye -- not at the question itself, but at the fact that it's undoubtedly a legitimate thing to ask.

"They know me from a long record," Specter responds. "But also I've met so many of them. There's a quality when you sit and talk with somebody that you can tell whether the guy's a straight shooter or not."

The trust, he said, "should come from a long record of my being trustworthy."

There's a theory about electoral politics that when someone runs for office, he or she makes a very specific deal with the voters -- and all that matters is whether that deal is upheld. If the deal is that Politician X will combat crime, it had better happen. If the deal is that Politician Y will bring money to his district, that bacon had better come. Anything that does or doesn't occur tangentially to the deal is of secondary concern to voters, at best.

Specter's "deal" has always been about straddling the middle of political discourse, bringing home money for the state and declaring himself an independent voice. So does that mean he implicitly has the voters' consent to be less than ideologically consistent?

"I think voters know that I'm hard-working," he replies. "They know that I'm honest, and they know that when I take a position, it's frequently against my political interest."

Of course, that last part is no longer really true: Since his party switch, Specter has rarely staked out positions that run counter to his interest, and it remains to be seen if he'll do so throughout the rest of 2010.

"He didn't have a strong partisan identity before, and that gave him a lot more wiggle room," says Madonna, the longtime pollster. "He is now much more identified as a partisan Democrat than he was for 28 years as a Republican. That brand he's got has shifted. His deal was always that he was independent, not heavily aligned with a party, not fiercely partisan. Now, it really matters whether or not people trust him. It's a fundamental problem."

It's not surprising, then, that Sestak has made trust the core of his primary challenge: "It's pretty obvious he's taken the positions that will assure him the best place in the Democratic primary," Sestak says. "The gravest harm that's been done to this country has been done by politicians like Specter, who will do anything to keep their jobs."

There's another school of thought, often more cynically received, which holds that members of Congress should be delegates for their constituents -- that their shifting on issues to reflect changing public sentiment is entirely proper. It's a philosophy that Specter, to some extent, embraces. For instance, he often notes changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage.

"We live in a representative democracy, and I listen to my constituents," he says.

Even by his standards, Arlen Specter's official reversal on same-sex marriage came lightning quick. In mid-September, his office sent a response letter to a constituent's question about DOMA, in which Specter said, clear as can be: "I support traditional marriage as defined in DOMA."

Six weeks later, Specter rolled out a high-profile initiative to repeal the law, which defines marriage for the federal government as a union between one man and one woman, while also allowing states not to recognize gay marriages sanctioned by other states.

Specter defended his newfound stance with vigor: He took to the floor of the Senate. He took to Twitter. He spoke with bloggers. He wrote an op-ed for The Huffington Post: "Enacted 13 years ago when the idea of same-sex marriage was struggling for acceptance, the act is a relic of a more tradition-bound time and culture."

Quite a change for six weeks.

To be fair, form letters to constituents are almost never seen by the lawmaker whose name is signed at the bottom, and Specter says that was the case here. But it illustrates the fact that even Specter's own staff has trouble keeping up with him.

Specter doesn't say when, exactly, he changed his mind. Nor does he couch it in terms of personal revelation: Simply, society has changed, so his position on gay marriage is changing with it.

That a politician might be so susceptible to public opinion on matters of civil rights could give activists pause. But it's here that Specter's long-standing ties to the gay community come roaring into play. And those relationships go way, way back. "Everyone seems to have a personal story about Arlen Specter," says Micah Mahjoubian, a gay Philadelphia political consultant working for Specter's re-election campaign. "That's why so many people support him."

It started in 1963, when Specter was an assistant district attorney. Philly cops would go to places where gay men gathered, lure them into making sexual advances and arrest them. Soon after, the cops would offer a way out of legal trouble, for an under-the-table price, of course. In his 2000 memoir Passion for Truth, Specter recalls seeing evidence of financial extortion by a particular officer. "I was livid," he writes. Though he didn't nail that cop for the shakedowns, Specter got a jury to convict him on other charges of conspiring to commit extortion.

"I went out of my way to protect the rights of gays," Specter told the Philadelphia Gay News editorial board late last year. In interviews and speeches, Specter often traces that early concern about gay oppression to growing up as a Jew in Kansas. Indeed, more than a decade ago Specter and Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsored hate crimes legislation (although it didn't pass until 2009).

But his conversion to marriage equality was undeniably fortuitously timed. After all, people in their late 70s rarely have spontaneous awakenings on issues like this.

"He didn't just take a shower one morning and say, 'Let gay people get married,'" says Lund, the Adams County Democratic chair. "I just don't trust it. And quite frankly, I think that if there wasn't a Joe Sestak in the race, he wouldn't be acting this progressive."

It's a December afternoon, and Arlen Specter is courting the conscience of the Democratic Party: liberal bloggers. He's on a conference call, one of many he's done to counter the mostly negative blogosphere reaction to his party switch. Specter was never a full-throated conservative; he's no more charismatic espousing progressive views.

This call offers him the chance to prove his liberal credentials. But for a guy often accused of pandering, he doesn't really do so here. One blogger asks him to come see the kind of free health clinic she thinks should be a component of health care reform legislation. He says he'll check his schedule. Another asks him if he'd vote against health care reform legislation if it doesn't have the public option he now favors. "Let's see what happens," Specter says.

Eve Gittelson, a Daily Kos blogger based in New York City, takes on the difficult task of "reading" Specter, hard enough to do in person: "You strike me as someone who's weary, almost in the best sense of the word, deeply frustrated, and almost pained that this health care legislation is not moving in a more straightforward trajectory," she says. "Am I reading you correctly?"

Specter chuckles. "No." He pauses. "We have some really complex matters here," he adds, brushing aside her question about how he actually feels.

By most accounts, wooing the netroots has paid dividends. Joe Sestak's fundraising prowess last year was fueled by Internet progressives, but it has since tapered off. Whatever momentum the party's activist base once gave the Delaware County congressman has largely failed to metastasize: Recent polling has Sestak trailing by more than 20 points.

In some respects, Specter has used the netroots to make his leftward march more visual, as when he used a blogger call to come out against the troop buildup in Afghanistan. And now, some who not long ago tore into him have come around into a cautiously optimistic embrace.

"Initially, I was very skeptical of his crass political opportunism," says Gittelson. "My opinion changed after I had the opportunity to speak to him a few times. But I'm an easy mark. I like to think the best of people, and I'm hoping I'm right with Specter."

The greatest fear among Democrats is that Specter will race back to the center (or center-right) if he wins the Democratic nomination May 18, and will resume voting with Republicans if he wins a sixth term in November. Specter lent those fears credence last month, when, after winning the state party's endorsement, he reiterated his support for a flat tax, a decidedly non-progressive idea.

Sestak has served as an outlet for progressive apprehension: "I believe him when he says he'll vote the way he did in the GOP, which is however serves him best," Sestak says. "It isn't just Arlen Specter that's the problem. It's his entire generation of politicians."

There's more than a little irony in the fact that Specter is being challenged from his left by Sestak, of all people, a military veteran who also painted himself a centrist in a conservative district that Republicans had held for 20 years before his 2006 defeat of the scandal-plagued Curt Weldon.

"I'm not conservative, I'm not liberal, I'm pragmatic," says Sestak, sounding not unlike the man he hopes to replace.

After a political life that started with the Warren Commission and Specter's oft-derided "single bullet theory" of JFK's assassination and wound its way through an eight-year stint as Philadelphia District Attorney, a failed run for mayor, a failed run for the U.S. Senate, a failed run for governor, another, successful, campaign for the Senate seat he would occupy for the next 30 years, a failed presidential bid, two bouts of Hodgkin's lymphoma, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, the seemingly endless battles over Roe v. Wade, rejection from his own party, the loss of his valued seniority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, derision from the right, and skepticism from the left, one wonders what Arlen Specter has left to prove.

He could, of course, give up the grind anytime he wants, and no one would begrudge an 80-year-old cancer survivor that choice. Last year, Toomey's insurgency offered him an easy out: He could have blamed it on his health, or said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Sure, political insiders would have known the truth, that maybe this primary challenge was one uphill climb too many. But his legacy, his almost half-century of public service, would have remained unsullied. Had he vanished into the sunset, Toomey and the GOP establishment that now trashes him at every turn would have all sung his praises. He would have gone down as a model of the seemingly anachronistic comity of Senate lore, praised and fêted and patted on the back as he left to spend his twilight years in his beautiful house in East Falls.

But Specter didn't make that choice. Instead, he chose to fight, to survive. As he said last year, he wasn't about to let his 30 years in the Senate be judged by the far-right, fundamentalist talk-radio crowd that makes up the GOP base. Not only because he abhors their dogmatism, although he does. But maybe, it's just that he simply has too much pride to leave on anything but his own terms.

Of course, that's not what he'll say if you ask him why he's sticking around. Instead, he'll talk about his grandchildren, and tell you, "I'm in it because I've got a lot of unfinished business."

Publicly, at least, he's still confident. And the man does love his job.

"I feel good," he says. "It's a great privilege to be a senator."

Dan Hirschhorn is the editor of pa2010.com, a political news Web site. He also contributes to the Philadelphia City Paper, where this story first appeared.

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