The Righty and the Switch Hitter | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Righty and the Switch Hitter

Faced with an increasingly right-leaning Republican Party and conservative primary opponent Pat Toomey, Arlen Specter's switch-hitting days may be numbered.

What's a Republican? Ten-month-old Vanessa clearly has no clue. And yet she's about to play a bit part in a political battle that may help settle that question -- at least in Pennsylvania, and possibly in the U.S. Senate.

Vanessa and her 18-year-old mother, Mary, occupy one of a row of chairs arrayed along a wall of the Community Room at Washington Hospital. Both long walls are lined with teen mothers and fathers, dressed in drool-on-me-casual clothes and holding well-behaved babies. The center of the room features an oval of chairs occupied by more stylish teens, and no babies. That's because the inner ring is reserved for "peer educators," many of whom travel to area middle schools preaching sexual abstinence. The symbolism couldn't be clearer: abstinence in, teen pregnancy out.

At the top of the inner circle, directly opposite the TV cameras, sit Republican senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum. The symbolism of that pairing is also crystalline. Specter is being called a liberal by his primary challenger, Republican Congressman Pat Toomey. What better way to counter Toomey's charge than to appear at an abstinence education forum with archconservative Santorum?

"Sen. Santorum and I have long been supporters of abstinence," says Specter. "When you eliminate an unintended pregnancy, you don't have to face any issues on abortion....Sen. Santorum recently led the floor fight on eliminating partial birth abortions, and I supported him."

Santorum adds that he's "thankful to Sen. Specter for appropriating the money needed to get these kinds of programs going in Pennsylvania," including $272,000 in federal money for Washington Hospital's Teen Outreach program, which trains and dispatches the peer educators. Left unmentioned are votes like Specter's of June 2000, against proposals to cut off federal funding to schools that provide contraception to students. Toomey is using that vote to paint the incumbent as a playground pusher of morning-after pills.

Then nine peer educators stand, don black-and-white masks, and read first-person monologues describing different teen attitudes toward sex, from prudish to promiscuous. The scripts aren't subtle: abstinence good, premarital sex bad. When it's over, Specter, a 74-year-old former prosecutor, asks one of the girls who read a sluttish monologue for more details on her decisions. After a long pause, somebody reminds him that the monologues were fictitious. Oh, OK. New line of questioning.

After some discussion of the peer educators' work, Specter peers beyond the inner circle and invites Mary and Vanessa to come and join them. And with that, a carefully scripted campaign event starts to get messy.

"This primary is a race between a mainstream Republican," says Pat Toomey, "and a very liberal Republican." To bolster his mainstream credentials, Toomey has on a winter afternoon brought with him to Pittsburgh one Robert Heron Bork.

Bork was the bearded U.S. Supreme Court nominee who the Senate sent packing in 1987. At his confirmation hearings, Specter questioned Bork on his philosophy of "original intent," under which judges should be guided by the intentions of the Constitution's authors. That philosophy ran counter to Specter's, which Specter described in his 2000 book Passion for Truth as holding that the Constitution is "a living, growing document, responsive to the needs of the nation." Specter voted no on Bork's nomination, leading to a 58-42 rejection of President Ronald Reagan's nominee, and earning him the ire of conservatives nationwide.

Bork went on to become an author and conservative icon, but this is the first time he's actively campaigned against Specter. "If he were re-elected, Sen. Specter would be the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee," Bork says. "He has a record of supporting quite liberal judges....He thinks the judges should be making up the Constitution, in many respects." Specter supports affirmative action, anti-hate-crimes legislation, campaign finance reform and the international criminal court, Bork continues.

Those may not be the issues most on the minds of Pennsylvanians contending with joblessness and international tensions, but they are lynchpins of Toomey's campaign to unseat Specter. It's a campaign with a simple mantra: "I'm the conservative alternative to the liberal Arlen Specter," says Toomey, as he sips coffee at Rebecca Tambellini Bar & Casual Dining at Station Square.

Since he arrived in Congress in 1999, Toomey has voted with the American Conservative Union's position 96 percent of the time, according to the ACU Web site. Specter has voted the conservative line 56 percent of the time since 1999, and just 42 percent of the time since his 1981 arrival in the Senate. Toomey, who hails from the Allentown suburb of Zionsville, opposes abortion rights, hate-crimes legislation and campaign finance reform. Toomey wants more tax cuts, accompanied by cuts in all discretionary federal programs except defense and homeland security. Specter was one of a handful of senators who forced President George Bush to trim his 2001 tax cut by $250 billion.

Specter's campaign has sought to paint Toomey as a fringe candidate. "He's not far right, he's far out!" says one Specter press release that cites 76 votes in which Toomey was the only Pennsylvania Republican on a given side of an issue. Toomey's "lonely votes" are mostly against spending proposals, expansions of parks, and foreign aid, and he treats them as a badge of honor. "There are times I've been part of a relatively small group of members of Congress voting against something because I think it's inconsistent with our Constitution, or because it's egregiously bad policy," he says.

Toomey says his independence stems from a pledge he took in 1998 to serve no more than three terms in the House. (He's finishing his third this year.) The term-limit pledge "has really liberated me from the pressure to conform," he says. "Especially career politicians, when they get to Washington, feel an enormous pressure to conform....Arlen Specter, his priority is to conform with the Democratic Party."

Specter's campaign has given special attention to Toomey's lonely November vote against the Republican Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, supported and signed by Bush. That bill has been trashed by Democrats for providing too little coverage to seniors, and for failing to do anything about spiraling drug costs. Toomey and 18 other House Republicans voted against it because they thought it did too much. "The fact that there is no limit on the cost of this thing scares me," Toomey tells the Pittsburgh Republican Committee, when asked about his vote. Medicare, he adds, "is unsustainable and insolvent and fundamentally in need of reform."

At Toomey events, supporters rarely mention his votes against Medicare drug benefits or campaign finance reform. They mention Specter's vote against Bork, Specter's "not proven" vote on charges against Democratic President Bill Clinton, and even Specter's pivotal role in crafting the controversial single-bullet theory on the assassination of President John Kennedy, 40 years ago. And Toomey sympathizers almost invariably bring up one issue: abortion. "I'm pro-life," says Pittsburgh Republican Committee Chairman Bob Hillen. "Specter is not pro-life. Toomey is." Hillen says he's not supporting Toomey per se, because the Republican State Committee has endorsed Specter, and local committees aren't allowed to buck the state. But the Specter campaign has accused him of breaking ranks, Hillen says, perhaps because he helped Toomey get the petition signatures necessary to get on the ballot. "When I was circulating [nominating] petitions, I carried both Specter and Toomey petitions," Hillen says. "More people wanted to sign the Toomey petitions."

Many local grassroots Republicans are quietly backing Toomey, though some of them won't say so on the record. Other GOP figures say the challenger scares them. "He's got a particularly odd, religious twist on things," says James Carmine, the Carlow College Philosophy Department chairman who was the Republican mayoral nominee in 2001. "I think he's pathologically conservative."

Back at Washington Hospital, Mary carries Vanessa gingerly into the inner circle, and sits a few chairs down from Specter. How did this baby come to be? Specter asks Mary. "I was in a relationship, and I was in it for a while, about a year, when I finally decided to become intimate," Mary says. The senator asks if she intended to have a baby. "I didn't make a decision to have her. It was a slip." Specter nods. Now comes that part about how teen motherhood was a big mistake and she wishes she'd gotten more abstinence-based education -- right?

Wrong. "I wouldn't change it for anything," Mary says, looking down at Vanessa. She's still getting As and Bs in school, plans to graduate, and expects to move in with the baby's father and eventually marry. Motherhood, she says, "has brought out a side of me that I never knew before."

The senators thank Mary, and she returns to the outer circle. Santorum turns the conversation to Janet Jackson's Super Bowl act, promiscuity in music, the corrupting influence of Hollywood. He calls on the peer educators, who join him in chiding the media. "I want to thank all of you, especially the teenagers, for standing up and fighting the tide," Santorum says. Then he leaves for another appointment.

Specter drifted into the Republican Party in 1965. A hotshot Philadelphia prosecutor, just back from a 10-month stint as a junior lawyer for the Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy's assassination, Specter had a hankering to run for district attorney. A Democrat from a Democratic family, Specter first approached that party's leaders. But the Philly machine "wanted a DA it could control," Specter wrote in Passion for Truth. At about the same time, local Republican leaders began courting him to run on their ticket. "My warm feelings for the national Democratic leadership clashed with my distaste for the corrupt Philadelphia Democratic organization," he wrote. So in a bid for bipartisanship, he ended up running as a registered Democrat on the Republican ballot line. He won, and then switched his party registration to Republican.

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, reportedly likened political parties to brawling drunks engaged in "a long and rather harmless contest [which] ended in each having fought himself out of his coat, and into the coat of the other." Since Lincoln's time the Republicans and Democrats have proved that quote. Republicans were originally socially liberal critics of slavery and free trade, while Democrats were the conservative protectors of the aristocracy, according to historian Robert Rutland's book The Republicans. By the time Specter switched, the Republicans were the more socially conservative, business-friendly party. But there was still a sizable moderate wing.

Specter was viewed as a relatively liberal Republican when he first ran for Senate in 1980, says Rochester University political science professor Richard Fenno, who shadowed Specter during that campaign and periodically for years thereafter. A Congress-watcher since the late 1950s, Fenno wrote the 1991 book Learning to Legislate: The Education of Arlen Specter. Specter's first term was a time of adjustment, says Fenno. "He was very much an individual, getting by on sheer talent," says Fenno. He "had to learn to adjust to the Senate, which is a collegial institution."

Twenty-three years after Specter took a seat in the Senate, he's still a singular figure in that collegial institution. He was voted "Meanest Senator" in a 2002 poll of Congressional staffers by Washingtonian magazine. Citizens Against Public Waste crowned Specter 2003's "Porker of the Year" for his proclivity at stuffing funding for pet projects into unrelated legislation. And an August National Review cover story called him "The Worst Republican Senator." The conservative magazine conceded that Specter "may not be the most unreliable GOP senator" but said he "is almost certainly the most harmful, because he is smart, ruthless, and influential."

Specter's seniority and his position on the pork-dishing Appropriations Committee and the judge-vetting Judiciary Committee make him a formidable player. If he's re-elected, and if the Republicans hold their slim Senate majority, Specter would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "He would be in a position to block virtually everything the president wants done -- key judicial nominations and other types of legislation," says Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Political Action Committee, and one of the national conservative movement's philosophical leaders.

Specter says he has supported Bush's judicial nominees. As regards prospective judges' views on abortion, "there ought not be any litmus test involved," he says. Although he is pro-choice, he notes, he supported pro-life former Attorney General Mike Fisher's nomination to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

While Weyrich, Bork, publisher Steve Forbes, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and other conservative movers have endorsed Toomey, Specter has lined up more widely recognized names. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Santorum and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are backing the incumbent. "The president needs [Specter's] vote and support and voice in the Senate," Giuliani said at a news conference. "But to be very frank about it, he also needs him in Pennsylvania running in November. If you have Arlen Specter on the ticket, who won 60 percent of the vote last time in the general election, that can be a very powerful force, giving the president a much better chance to win this state."

Specter has even garnered some support from labor unions, which more and more restrict their giving to Democrats. Unions gave $191,750 to Specter's campaign last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group. Unions gave nothing to Toomey, who has tried to turn labor's support for his opponent into an issue. Toomey's campaign Web site includes many unions in a list of "Notable Liberal Individuals/Organizations Supporting Arlen Specter" that also includes the American Trial Lawyers Association, the American AIDS Political Action Committee, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign.
Specter supporters usually crow less about his ideology than about his clout and vote-getting prowess. "I agree with most of what he's done," says Allegheny County Councilor Jan Rea, a Republican State Committee member. Rea notes that Specter has steered funding to research on juvenile diabetes, a near-epidemic condition she's seen up-close in her own family. "He's a senior senator....He's absolutely good for getting funding." He'll bring Bush votes by getting Republicans to the polls, she adds.

As Toomey's challenge has picked up steam, moderate Republicans have begun rallying around Specter. A recent letter distributed by the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition urges lapsed GOP members "to reregister Republican...[and] join a growing number of Pennsylvania Republicans who believe that our party has swung too far to the right." The most prominent signatory: former Republican National Committee Woman Elsie Hillman. "As moderates leave our party," the letter continues, "the primary voter base has moved further to the right, helping candidates like Pat Toomey to potentially win."

With Santorum gone, Specter invites Paul, a young man holding a baby, into the inner circle. The baby's mother, Teresa, comes in, too. It turns out this is not a traditional family unit; it may be something even nobler. The three-month-old boy is not Paul's; it is Teresa's child from a prior relationship. The biological father wants nothing to do with the child. Teresa had abstinence-based sex ed, and wishes she had paid more attention, she says. But Paul, her beau since before the baby's birth, doesn't mind that Teresa faltered. "I wouldn't change it for the world," he says, cradling the baby. "Taking on the responsibility and taking care of a child is just something I'm willing to do." They plan to eventually marry.

Specter then works his way around the inner circle, asking each of the peer educators a few questions. He ends the first half-dozen interviews with the question, "And are you abstinent?" Each of the teens answers yes, and each time they do, nearly everyone in the room claps. Perhaps realizing how weird this all seems, Specter eventually stops asking the question.

Reminded that a Feb. 18 poll by Quinnipiac University found that 79 percent of Pennsylvanians hadn't heard of him, Toomey groans and looks into the ice water that is chasing his coffee. "If you did a poll of the people in Canada, you'd find that my name ID was zero," he says. "What does that tell you about my race? Nothing....By Election Day, every registered Republican in Pennsylvania is going to know who I am."

Toomey has a long way to go to unseat an incumbent senator in a primary -- something that has happened just twice nationwide in 24 years. Toomey closed out last year behind Specter by $7.1 million in the race for campaign cash. He didn't even compete for the Republican State Committee endorsement. So why are moderates like Hillman even worried about him?

The answer is that Toomey could pull off an upset. According to Millersville University polls, about half of Pennsylvania Republicans describe themselves as conservative. About half of Republicans have a positive view of Specter. Presumably, there's not much overlap between those halves, and the conservatives may be more likely to vote than the Specter fans. "In Republican primaries, the electorate tends to skew conservative," says Adam Geller, president of National Research Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based Republican polling firm. "Advantage: Toomey." Of course, Specter has much more money, Geller adds. "The conventional wisdom is that Specter pulls it out."

Nobody thinks it will be easy for Specter. While Toomey runs at Specter from the right, Democrats are assailing him from the left. The Democratic nominee-apparent, Congressman Joe Hoeffel of Montgomery County, has criticized Specter for not opposing Bush's conservative judicial nominees. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has noted that Specter trimmed Bush's budget-busting tax cut in 2001 but supported the 2003 version, calling that an example of the "Specter two-step" in which the senator votes liberal in the off years and swings rightward when faced with a conservative challenger. If Democratic critiques temper moderates' enthusiasm for Specter, while Toomey wins over conservatives, the incumbent could be in for a long night on April 27.

"I think [a Toomey win] is a long shot, but I think it's conceivable," says state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, who left the Republican Party for the Democrats in December. Hafer remembers her 1990 bid for governor, when her unknown and underfunded Republican rival Peg Luksik garnered 46 percent of the vote based almost solely on her pro-life stance and Hafer's pro-choice position. (Hafer went on to lose the general election to incumbent Democrat Robert Casey.) "I made the decision to switch because the [Republican] party for me is really the party of Rick Santorum," says Hafer.

If Toomey beats Specter, it could send other Republican moderates scurrying for the exits and hurt the GOP's future in centrist Pennsylvania, says Hafer. "They've trended too far to the right, and there may be a backlash," she says. "I'm not counting the Republican Party out. They're a tough, well-funded, well-organized party. But I think their tent is shrinking."

Conservatives like Free Congress PAC's Weyrich say moderate angst isn't going to hurt the GOP. "Ronald Reagan narrowed the party ideologically, and broadened its appeal," Weyrich says. As further evidence, he points to current Republican control of both the House and Senate at a time when there "aren't enough moderate Republicans to make a difference. The vast majority of the Republican caucus is conservative." Toomey can solidify conservative control by repeating Santorum's feat of building an effective conservative coalition in a relatively moderate state, Weyrich says.

If Toomey ultimately replaces Specter in the Senate, something important will be lost, says Rochester University professor Fenno. Today, he says, "you have the most polarized Congress that I have known since I started studying Congress in the late 1950s....There are very few people who can work across party lines to get things done." Specter is one of those few, Fenno says. "His posture as a liberal Republican, or a flexible Republican, is crucial to the system."

Back in the Community Room, Specter asks Washington Hospital Teen Outreach Director Mary Jo Podgurski what she thinks about President George Bush's call to double funding for abstinence-only sex ed. With Specter flanked by a staffer he hired away from conservative Pat Robertson's organization on one side, and a Catholic priest on the other, it's apparent that Podgurski is supposed to jump for joy at the prospect of more abstinence ed funding. But she doesn't. "If it was up to me, I'd spread the money a little broader, and not just on abstinence education," she says.

"Are you suggesting a program of contraception along with abstinence?" Specter asks.

"At the high school level, yes," Podgurski says. "In 30 years [counseling teens], I've learned that every kid is different. Kids have sex for different reasons."

"Senator, we only have a couple more minutes," one of Specter's aides loudly announces, as the senator and Podgurski continue to talk.

"Well, I think we're going to spend a little more time here, Doug," Specter says. He asks if providing abstinence and contraception information together might send "mixed messages." Not if it's done right, says Podgurski; today's teens are sophisticated, and have to be entrusted with the knowledge to make informed decisions.

Specter listens carefully without endorsing or criticizing Podgurski's message. Perhaps he's sympathetic; his vote on the distribution of contraception in schools suggests as much. But that's a vote Toomey's Web site characterizes as one "to allow ‘morning after' pills to be distributed to elementary and secondary school children," and Specter isn't going out of his way to explain it. Specter's Web site, in fact, avoids social issues altogether.

Little Vanessa and some of the other babies are getting fussy; maybe they don't think he's brought enough funding for abstinence education, Specter quips. More likely they need naps. Certainly the babies' distress isn't related to what they've just seen: the tension between the simple mantras increasingly define America's reigning party, and the complex realities that created them.

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