2009.05.07 – More Losers Than Winners From Specter Switch

May 7, 2009 – 12:01 a.m.
More Losers Than Winners From Specter Switch
By Richard L. Connor, CQ Guest Columnist

Democrats, led by their new party member Sen. Arlen Specter , descended upon Sugarloaf Township in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania last week loaded down with dough for cancer research.

Some of the patients being treated for a rare form of blood disorder said he was arriving late with his $5.5 million. About five years too late. That’s how long since many of the residents of three counties began to realize they had similar symptoms.

The disease is called polycythemia vera, PV for short. Almost 40 cases have been found in this area of northeastern Pennsylvania. One published estimate says at least three people have died from it here.

It matters not to these folks who brought the money or who took credit for it. They just want a cure, and this money will mostly be spent on research directed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If he had arrived two days earlier, I’m certain Specter would have given credit to himself and the Republican Party. Instead, he said he was responsible for the money because he sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

He had a top position on that committee last week and so he needed to get home fast to claim credit for the money — before he became the committee’s lowest-ranking Democrat.

But wait. He’s cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to regain some of his seniority if reelected next fall. And, as it turns out, if his new compatriates agree.

Smiling all around him at his press conference last Friday were his new friends, Democrats from Pennsylvania.

Specter was magnanimous. He thanked his colleagues for their support. Gratitude was expressed to the two Democratic House of Representatives from the state, Paul Kanjorski and Chris Carney. Fellow Sen. Bob Casey was also mentioned.

Finished with his most sincere thanks to his fellow Democrats, Specter thought it appropriate in passing to mention he is running for re-election. He’s 79 and this might be his last campaign but who knows? There are others older than he is who are still serving. Once gained, the allure of power is just too strong to abandon.

Specter has said he switched parties because he knew he would face a tough time persuading Republicans in the state to vote for him in what promised to be a tough primary. The man who almost beat him in the last election, Pat Toomey, has announced he will be running again.

Many in his former party have been angered over Specter’s middle-of-the-road stances on many issues and were particularly aggravated that he voted in favor of the financial stimulus package this year. That bill was seen as one crucial to the new President Barack Obama and his followers.

While in Pennsylvania last week, Specter was quoted in the local newspaper as categorizing that vote, siding with the Democrats, saying his former party wrote him off for what amounted to “one vote out of 10,000.” The truth is that Pennsylvania Republicans have seen him as soft on the Democrats’ issues for years. That’s why he almost lost the primary last time.

One of the local northeastern political leaders who were there has become somewhat party agnostic. Considered by many to be a Republican he became disenchanted with some of his fellow GOP clan during last year’s primaries.

He began helping a Democratic candidate.

Some of Specter’s new-found Democratic Party members did not know quite what to make of him last week on what was his first visit home to Pennsylvania as a Democratic Senator. They stood around trying to decide how to – or if to – embrace Specter. It was as if Michael Vick had shown up at an SPCA convention — though stranger things have happened.

Specter might be old and frail, but there’s a lot of pit bull in him.

If he deserves credit for being wily and tenacious in fighting for his political life, which he doesn’t, you’d have to grudgingly say he isn’t a quitter.

But he did quit the Republican Party and you could say the party quit him. When it did, Pennsylvania Republicans essentially gave up their chance to retain a seat in Congress. They lost him and the state lost the power of his seniority.

That means ultimately state residents, such as those battling that insidious blood cancer, also lost someone who could help them.

When Specter changed parties, everyone lost except the Democrats. He ran off with the first pretty girl he saw, deciding not to leave with the one who brung him to the dance. What a shame.

Richard L. Connor is the chief executive officer and ownership partner of the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Publishing Co., which owns a group of daily and weekly newspapers. A newspaperman for 40 years, he previously was president and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas. He has written a column for most of his career, and has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees.