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Sen. Arlen Specter, A Moderate Voice For 30 Years, Dies

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter has died. The GOP firebrand made headlines in 2009 when he switched parties. Before leaving the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat, he had a reputation for speaking out against some of his own party's positions.


ARLEN SPECTER: It is sort of an occupational hazard of mine to be stuck in the middle. And I will support my party when I can. But if it's a matter of conscious, I may have to disagree.

MARTIN: NPR's political editor Ron Elving is with us now. Welcome, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, we think of Senator Specter as a Republican moderate. He famously switched parties, as we said, in 2009, but remind us how he started his political career.

ELVING: He started his political career in Philadelphia, running for district attorney and for mayor and then for several state-wide offices, and he had to endure some pretty humiliating defeats before he was finally elected to the United States Senate as part of the Reagan landslide of 1980.

MARTIN: He was famously outspoken during the Clarence Thomas confirmation process as well.

ELVING: Yes, he was. He was famous, in fact, for his interrogation of Anita Hill. And this was really the crucial moment in the entire confirmation process of Clarence Thomas because we had just learned about her allegations against him during the period of time they both worked in the government together. And Arlen Specter was designated by the Republicans to be their interrogator, if you will, and he gave her a very rough time, and as a result, in the end, the Republican senators stuck with Clarence Thomas.

MARTIN: Ultimately, why did he decide to cross the aisle, leave the GOP and become a Democrat? What was happening that he felt that he needed to do that?

ELVING: He actually began his political life in the 1950s-'60s as a Democrat and switched to the Republican Party because there were more opportunities for him there initially in his career in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. But by 2009, he become not just a, quote, "moderate Republican," but really in comparison with the rest the party, he was a bit of a outlier and he had had challenges for his re-nomination in his party, and he could see the handwriting on the wall for 2010 that he was going to be challenged again in the primary, so he decided that his best chance was to defeat all comers on the Democratic side and try to be re-elected in the other party. It didn't work for him in 2010.

MARTIN: Ultimately costing him his political career. He represented Pennsylvanians for over 30 years, Ron. What were some of his big legislative victories?

ELVING: I think he was seen as someone who would do whatever it took, not only to help Pennsylvania, but also to advance the ultimate goals of Congress in the sense of passing big legislation. One of the things that got him in trouble in 2009, of course, was he voted for President Obama's stimulus when only a tiny number of Republicans, just two or three Republicans were willing to do that.

He was willing to negotiate on health care. He was willing to negotiate on many of the other Obama priorities. And this had marked him as a pariah in his own party, but it was consistent with a lifetime of believing that Congress needed to come to some sort of an arrangement, some kind of a compromise, some kind of a deal, get a bill passed.

MARTIN: Who is he personally - how will be remembered by his colleagues on the Hill and by Pennsylvanians?

ELVING: Arlen Specter was a cantankerous man. I don't think he would contest that. I think he would insist upon it.


ELVING: In his late interviews with various reporters late in his life who they know that his political was over and his health was failing, he would insist upon the degree to which he had always expressed his views candidly, how he always advanced his career aggressively, and how he was always a person you knew what you were going to get when you were dealing with Arlen Specter.

So this was, if you will, not only his mark as a politician but it was something that he was absolutely proud of. He wanted you always to know where Arlen Specter stood.

MARTIN: NPR political editor Ron Elving remembering Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania this morning and his political legacy. Thanks so much, Ron.

ELVING: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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