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Longtime United States Sen. Specter dies at 82

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 1:06 p.m.
Brian F. Henry
U.S. Senator Arlen Specter answers a question at a town hall meeting at the Belmont Complex in Kittanning Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Arlen Specter, who scuttled his U.S. Senate career after switching to the Democratic Party in an ill-fated re-election gambit, died on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Specter, 82, announced in late August that he was battling cancer. He died in his home from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, said his son Shanin.

Specter underwent treatment for cancer three times during his Senate career. He suffered from a malignant brain tumor and was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2005 and in 2008.

His biggest political challenge came in 2009 as he looked ahead to 2010 GOP primary opposition from former congressman Pat Toomey; Toomey narrowly lost to him in 2004.

So he switched parties, believing his chance of winning the Democratic nomination was better than beating Toomey.

Despite strong support from President Obama, Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator lost the Democratic primary to then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.

Sestak then lost to Toomey in a hard-fought general election.

That wasn't Specter's first party switch. In 1965, he ran for Philadelphia District Attorney on the GOP ticket as a registered Democrat, won and served two terms.

His public career began as an assistant legal counsel to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. He was co-author of what became known as the single-bullet theory — that one shot from Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally as they rode in a Dallas motorcade.

He theorized that two bullets fired in such rapid succession would have been indicative of two gunmen and there was no evidence to support that premise. Specter's conclusion triggered a spate of books by conspiracy theorists about how Kennedy was killed.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, former Allegheny County coroner, once called Specter's theory “absolute nonsense,” but the two men later become close friends and Wecht endorsed him for re-election.

“Sometimes life is so unpredictable and inexplicable,” Wecht said.

In 2004, Specter asked Wecht whether he would support him for re-election.

“I did,” said Wecht, a Democrat. “He was the first and only Republican I ever endorsed publicly.”

James Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee and former county executive, said he had a “mixed relationship” with Specter.

“I met him, I guess, in the early 1980s shortly after I came to Pittsburgh. I worked with him when I was chairman of the Port Authority and as chairman of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. I worked with him as County Executive,” Roddey said. “When I needed help in Washington, he was always there. I got very frustrated with him from time to time on some positions he took, but he was a very effective legislator for Pennsylvania.”

That working relationship soured when Specter became a Democrat.

“I would like to remember Arlen from the days we worked together,” Roddey said.

Specter began his three-decade Senate career in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan was elected president. He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 2005 to 2007 and chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee from 1995 to 1997.

Senate Republicans, weary of Specter's rogue behavior, forced him to pledge support for President Bush's judicial nominees and other policies before giving him the judiciary post. Many felt he soon reneged by criticizing the Patriot Act and other Bush anti-terrorism measures.

It was not the only time he switched positions, either. In May 2009 he said he opposed President Obama's health-care reform plan; two months later, he voted for it.

Jeff Brauer, political science professor at Keystone College, said Specter will be remembered as a “gruff, independent, moderate who eventually lost the faith of both political parties.”

His most memorable legacy will be his Judiciary role in vetting Supreme Court justices, Brauer said.

Specter earned the enmity of conservatives for his relentless questioning of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and his aggressive interrogation of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. The committee rejected Bork's nomination; Thomas was confirmed.

Specter suffered a number of political defeats over the years. After losing a third term as Philadelphia's district attorney, he sought the GOP Senate nomination in 1976, losing to John Heinz. Two years later, he lost a GOP bid for governor to Richard Thornburg.

In 1995, he opened a bid for the GOP presidential nomination and dropped it after failing to win backing – but not before denouncing the Christian right as an extremist “fringe.”

Specter took credit for helping to defeat President Clinton's national health care plan, the complexities of which he highlighted in a gigantic chart hung on his office wall for years.

As a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he pushed for increased funding for stem-cell research, breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and supported several labor-backed initiatives in a GOP-led Congress.

Specter was born in 1930 in Wichita, Kan., to Ukrainian immigrant parents. He spent summers toiling in his father's junkyard in Russell, Kan., where he met future fellow senator Bob Dole.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania, served in the Air Force and then graduated in 1956 from Yale Law School.

After he left the Senate in January 2011, the University of Pennsylvania Law School said Specter would teach a course about Congress' relationship with the Supreme Court. He also hosted a political-affairs show on Maryland Public Television.

He is survived by his wife, Joan; two sons, Shanin and Steve; and four granddaughters.

Trib Total Media staff writer Salena Zito and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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