Joe Who? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Joe Who?

Joe Hoeffel, that's who. If that name doesn't ring a bell by Nov. 2, then the U.S. Senate will likely stay in Republican hands.

Just Joe Hoeffel's luck. Gale-force winds kick up as he arrives late for an Oct. 2 Democratic rally in Cheswick. Tablecloths rip free from their masking tape moorings and whip about. Democratic stalwarts trudge toward their cars, fearful of a deluge that never materializes. Nonetheless, Hoeffel bounds on stage, full of leftover adrenaline from his debate with Sen. Arlen Specter, completed 90 minutes earlier. "I kicked his ass!" he tells the dwindling faithful. "It's been a long time coming, but change is going to come!"

Hoeffel has some cause to be pumped. In their Pittsburgh debate, he assailed Specter's record from the left -- both literally and figuratively, thanks to the seating arrangement -- while Libertarian Betsy Summers and Constitution Party candidate Jim Clymer attacked the incumbent from the right. Specter parried some of the attacks, but still came off as defensive. For Hoeffel, it was the kind of debate that could lead to a boost in the polls -- if anybody saw it. Unfortunately, the statewide broadcast schedule had the debate airing late at night in most markets.

Just Joe Hoeffel's luck.

Hoeffel, 54, is a Democratic congressman from the Philadelphia suburb of Abington, who gave up the security of a House seat to make a run at four-term Philadelphia Republican Specter. In late April, Hoeffel seemed to be one of the Democratic Party's great hopes for wresting control of the Senate from the Republicans. His party had handed him an uncontested nomination, and seemed galvanized by hatred of President George W. Bush. Meanwhile Specter eked out a 2-percentage-point win over Congressman Pat Toomey in a nasty GOP primary. For a moment, it looked like the state's famously fractious Democrats and traditionally united Republicans had switched roles.

Almost six months later, anti-Bush sentiment is still strong, but otherwise the landscape has shifted, and some pundits are writing Hoeffel off. Key Democratic constituencies, like labor and African Americans, haven't united behind Hoeffel. A few prominent Dems, like Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht, have endorsed Specter. And Hoeffel's effort to boost Clymer's candidacy, and thereby siphon conservative votes from Specter, hasn't had enough of an impact. With polls giving him less than 40 percent of the vote, Hoeffel may be wondering whether his campaign has been victimized by bad breaks, a bad game plan, or the slow collapse of a once-potent coalition.

You can't say Hoeffel isn't trying. He kicked off his campaign on Dec. 9 at the Johnstown Flood Museum -- an obvious bid for mid-state credibility that fizzled when only two-dozen supporters showed up. In July, he and his wife were arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington, where they were protesting the genocide in that country's largely black Darfur region; it was "a small act of conscience" of questionable "political wisdom," he said in the press release his campaign nonetheless instantly disseminated. From Aug. 26 through Aug. 30, he walked from Johnstown to Pittsburgh in a feat that garnered far less media attention than Bill Clinton's visit to town on Aug. 31.

Ask Hoeffel why he's marching on, and he rewinds to the country's last divisive war. "I first got involved in politics because I was opposed to the Vietnam War," he says. Now Hoeffel seems genuinely enraged that he was fooled into voting to authorize another quagmire. "There was this bad guy involved, Saddam Hussein," Hoeffel says, mocking the administration's justification for war, "who had weapons of mass destruction, and before he could use them, he had to be disarmed. Where the hell are the weapons of mass destruction?...I was lied to, and the American people were lied to."

Hoeffel's campaign rhetoric is aimed less at Specter than at Bush. His recent ads cite Specter's boast that he voted in support of Bush's policies 89 percent of the time. "I think that's the main issue in this campaign," Hoeffel says in one ad. "I don't think George Bush's policies have helped Pennsylvania, and I've opposed them." There's a certain logic to that tactic: Bush's record is better known and more controversial than Specter's, so tying the senator to the president saves precious airtime.

You'd think that if tying Specter to Bush were going to work anywhere, it would be in neighborhoods like the Hill District, where the persistent unemployment and worsening poverty that have characterized this administration are on display. Talk politics on Centre Avenue, and everybody says they'll vote for Democrat John Kerry. Many here feel that Bush stole the 2000 election, misled the nation to an unnecessary war, cares only for the rich, and allowed assault weapons to come back on the market, threatening their children.

"It seems that we haven't done nothing under Bush, so it's time for a change," says an elderly man waiting for a bus on Centre. "This country, they're talking about being safer. It doesn't look too safe here." Ask about the Senate race, though, and his conviction fades. "Specter hasn't been bad. Hoeffel? I haven't heard anything about him until this year."

Tenure has its advantages. In May, Specter garnered the endorsements of 17 prominent Pittsburgh-area African Americans, some of whom cited instances when the senator steered federal funding to their projects. In September, a coalition of ministers called the Philadelphia Black Clergy endorsed the incumbent, again touting his bring-home-the-bacon record. Neither group said much about his support for Bush's agenda, or his membership in a party that seemed nostalgic about segregation at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party in 2002.

That's a bad break for Hoeffel in a state where Democratic candidates typically start with 90 percent of the black vote, a big majority of union households, and all of the liberals -- and then have to build from there to win. Specter's two decades of securing funding and favors have badly damaged that base just when the Democrats needed it most.

In August, the state AFL-CIO endorsed Specter. Hoeffel's voting record is more pro-labor than Specter's, and the GOP has been hostile toward organized labor, concedes Jim Deegan, editor of the state AFL-CIO's publications. But Specter has helped restore funding for health and safety programs, protect prevailing wage rules, and steer federal funds to union-run programs, Deegan says. "It wouldn't be sending the right message to moderate Republicans if labor didn't support someone like Arlen Specter, who has been there to support working families when it really mattered," says Deegan.

Unions representing about 210,000 workers have bucked the AFL-CIO's endorsement. "I'm embarrassed that my brothers and sisters voted [to endorse Specter]," said Vince Maisano, vice president of the Communication Workers of America's Philadelphia local, on a Sept. 30 conference call announcing the CWA's decision to back Hoeffel. He later attributed the AFL-CIO's decision to "favors" to particular unions and key votes against certain privatization initiatives.

"The rank-and-file of organized labor is going to vote Democratic," says Hoeffel. "So [Specter's] endorsements don't mean much." He adds that collecting endorsements and "lining up special-interest groups" is "the old politics." His focus, he says, is "to hold [Bush and Specter] accountable for problems in the state of Pennsylvania." He's getting that message out, he says, while Specter "goes around lining people up."

Line up enough people, of course, and you win elections. As Pittsburgh Controller and Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Tom Flaherty puts it, "You would much rather have, than not have, those mainstay constituencies supporting you."

Conventional wisdom in Democratic circles is that to win Pennsylvania, you consolidate the base and then run toward the political center. That strategy worked for Gov. Ed Rendell in 2002. It didn't work in 2000, when Democratic Congressman Ron Klink fell 327,000 votes short of dethroning Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a hard-line conservative. It would be especially difficult against Specter, who is often considered a moderate largely because of his pro-choice views on abortion. Hoeffel has apparently tried a different strategy: Rally the left, while neutralizing the right.

Hoeffel has scored with the environmental movement, winning the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action endorsements. Hoeffel's pro-environment voting record "is about 95 percent" since his ascent to Congress in 1999, says David McGuire, vice chair of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania's Political Committee. Specter, meanwhile, "has supported all of the worst elements of the Bush environmental agenda," McGuire notes, including Bush's logging policy, oil-and-gas-drilling plans, and anti-environmental judicial appointees.

In liberal neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, though, support for Hoeffel hasn't been automatic. "I've never seen the community so engaged as in this discussion of whether to support Hoeffel or Specter," says Eric Marchbein, chair of the 14th Ward Democratic Committee. Marchbein's argument for Hoeffel: "Electing Kerry without electing Hoeffel would be to elect...a veto [-wielding] president who would be constantly challenged by a Republican Congress."

One of Squirrel Hill's most prominent liberal Democrats feels differently. "To have a U.S. senator going into his fifth term from our state is worth its weight in gold," says Wecht, who endorsed Specter in September. The two have sparred about the details of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. But, Wecht adds, Specter "has been very helpful to us," especially by supporting Duquesne University's Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. "If [Specter] were some right-wing person, that would be a different ballgame," Wecht says.

After the primary, Hoeffel may have had a shot at winning over a few right-wingers. Ray Horvath, for example, is a Ross Township computer programmer and head of the conservative/libertarian Thomas Jefferson Think Tank dinner club, which rails monthly against taxes and regulation. Horvath supported Toomey in the primary. Post-primary, he argued that both Specter and Hoeffel were liberals, and since veterans wield more power in the Senate than rookies, Hoeffel would be the less damaging choice. He says that rationale was shared by some other Toomey backers who initially moved toward Hoeffel.

Horvath recently changed his mind -- not because of his belief that Hoeffel is "a socialist," but because the challenger is trailing in the polls. Most conservatives, he says, "have come to the conclusion that [Hoeffel] won't win, so they won't sully themselves by pulling his lever, and will instead vote for Clymer."

Hoeffel has admitted that volunteers in his campaign helped the pro-life, anti-spending Clymer get on the ballot, and he insisted that Clymer be included in the debates. Clymer is probably drawing most of his support from Specter. But Clymer's presence on the ballot may have also given conservatives who might have voted for Hoeffel to spite Specter another way to register their protest votes.

In the vast middle of the spectrum, meanwhile, there is ambivalence. The Democrats' 2000 poster boy for centrism, Ron Klink, is now a lobbyist and has endorsed Specter. The middle-of-the-road's 2002 champion, Rendell, has endorsed Hoeffel, but there's little evidence that the governor has brought his legendary fund-raising prowess to bear. Through September, Hoeffel had raised just $2.8 million in campaign cash, versus $16.2 million for Specter, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. Rendell "thinks Joe Hoeffel would be an outstanding representative of Pennsylvania," says Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo, but also has "a great deal of respect for Sen. Specter." Ardo adds that "it would behoove this state" to have a Democrat-controlled Senate, since its priorities "would be more in line with Pennsylvania's needs."

It would certainly behoove the Democrats to seize the Senate, no matter who wins the presidency. The House is expected to remain Republican, so if Bush is re-elected, a Democratic Senate would be the only conceivable brake on his power. If Kerry wins, but the Senate remains Republican, he may face hostile legislation and partisan investigations, much as Clinton did during his second term. Analysts for The New York Times say the Democrats have to win five of the six hotly contested Senate seats to take control. The Times' analysts -- like most other pundits -- views Hoeffel as a long shot. If he can prove them wrong, the Dems' chances of seizing the Senate would improve substantially.

Emerging from the Oct. 2 debate, Hoeffel takes the stage at WTAE's studios to field media questions. "I feel good!" he opens, with some of James Brown's gusto. Then he looks around, curiously. "I know it was a hot debate, but I do smell smoke." Sure enough, right above him, a piece of paper taped to a light is on the verge of igniting. Luckily, studio technicians turn off the light in the nick of time.

Asked by reporters about his chances, Hoeffel argues that his message will prevail over Specter's overwhelming financial advantage and cagey campaigning. "Remember the Alamo, and remember Pat Toomey," he says, perhaps forgetting that both the Texas fort's American defenders and the conservative congressman fought hard -- but lost.