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Jewish World Review April 27, 2004 / 6 Iyar, 5764

John H. Fund

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Arlen Specter's personality helps make him vulnerable in today's primary | PHILADELPHIA— A 24-year incumbent U.S. senator shouldn't have trouble winning the nomination of his own party. But Arlen Specter is struggling to win tomorrow's GOP primary against Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative who says that unlike Mr. Specter he "belongs to the Republican wing of the Republican Party."

Mr. Specter's problems aren't merely his haphazard support for President Bush's agenda or his liberal stands on many issues. The clout he has in Congress brings home a lot of dollars for Pennsylvania, but along with them come innumerable stories that he intimidates and bullies opponents and allies alike. The outcome of the race many hinge on whether the benefits of Mr. Specter's largesse are outweighed by the number of people who are fed up with a personality so alienating that it has led many in the state to dub him "Snarlin' Arlen" or "The Arlenator." Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says of Specter: "He's an intimidating senator and very successful at any game of political 'Survivor.' "

His rough edges may not have endeared him to many people, but Mr. Specter secured President Bush's endorsement after the White House realized he was in line next year to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which nominations for any Supreme Court vacancy must pass. The rest of Mr. Specter's considerable power derives from his ability as chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee to personally earmark hundreds of millions of federal dollars each year for projects back home. Mr. Specter is unapologetic. "My adversaries accuse me of voting for pork," he told me last year. "I call it bringing home the bacon."

Indeed, so zealous is Mr. Specter in securing grants for the National Institutes of Health that last month he was chastised on the Senate floor by Pete Domenici, a former chairman of the Budget Committee. Mr. Domenici, a well-known advocate of greater science funding, nonetheless said the NIH has "turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can't keep their oinks closed. They send a senator down there to argue as if they're broke." Mr. Specter promptly rose to respond: "The NIH did not send this senator anywhere. My views arise from my own research."

What concerns some Pennsylvania officials is that the Senator's research into what projects should receive federal funds may include a blatant analysis of his own political needs. Last week, Andy Roman, a Lehigh County commissioner, said that Mr. Specter's staff told him that his request for a local rail project "will never happen" because Mr. Roman was supporting Mr. Toomey in the GOP primary.

Mr. Roman says that on April 7 he started out having "a very good discussion" about the rail project with Adrienne Baker Green, the director of Mr. Specter's Allentown office. "At the end of the conversation, the question was, 'By the way, we understand there's a possibility you may not be supporting the senator.' And I said, 'Well, you're right, I'm supporting Rep. Toomey.' And the tenor of the conversation changed very quickly. They said, 'If that's the case, your rail initiative will come to a sudden end, and it will never happen.' "

Ms. Baker Green says that "not in a million years" would she have made such a statement. Mr. Roman replies that "this kind of intimidation is widespread across the whole state. Arlen Specter has put the fear of God into every elected official you talk to, and people are given the message quite clearly: That if you cross Arlen Specter, you pay a price."

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"He doesn't suffer from a desperate desire to be popular," said Thatcher Longstreth, who ran for mayor of Philadelphia in the 1970s with Mr. Specter as his campaign manager. "He suffers from a desperate desire to be elected." To that end, Mr. Specter has built up an incumbency machine that takes credit for projects in every one of the state's 67 counties. He travels the state constantly. When I had dinner with him last year in New York, he knew not only my name but also that of everyone else at the table. He focused like a laser beam on the issues he thought would be of interest to me and doggedly made his case.

Mr. Specter developed his tireless work ethic early as he rose from humble origins to graduate from Yale Law School. He then moved to Philadelphia to enter politics. Originally a Democrat, he became a Republican at 35 when in 1965 the local Democratic machine turned down his request to be nominated for district attorney. The GOP nomination was his for the asking, but he covered his bases. He changed his party registration only after he had won. After he narrowly lost a race for mayor of Philadelphia in 1967, he was advised by a friend that he needed more warmth. "Okay, I'll get some," he replied.

After three defeats for elected office during the 1970s, the "never say I'm not running" Mr. Specter hit political pay dirt in 1980 when he narrowly won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and defeated a Pittsburgh mayor in a test of regional strength in the fall. Since then he has spared no effort to line up the fundraising and endorsements he needs to survive in the Republican primaries where he is most vulnerable.

While Mr. Specter has survived, the same cannot necessarily be said about his staff. A 2000 Washingtonian magazine survey of congressional staffers rated him the third meanest senator. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call once named him to a select list of "Simon Legree" bosses for his "tendency to humiliate underlings." The Washington Post concluded the worst job on Capitol Hill was "Specter flunky."

Douglas Troutman, a former aide to Mr. Specter, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002 that the atmosphere in the Specter office was "white-collar boot camp." When told of that description, Mr. Specter replied, "I haven't heard that one, but I wouldn't argue with it."

If his office is akin to a boot camp, Mr. Specter is exacting in specifying how he is to be treated on his many official foreign trips. Twice in recent years, outraged State Department officials have leaked to the Washington Post cable traffic detailing Mr. Specter's demands. Prior to a 2002 trip, the squash-playing Mr. Specter insisted on having U.S. Embassy officials schedule a match at 5 p.m. with a local opponent on each day of his trip. "Please have a case or two of Evian water for us to take with us at each embassy," read a planning memo directed to the embassies. Officials were to schedule "no evening events, including dinner with the ambassador or at the embassy. The Specters like to do their own thing at night." When in doubt, officials planning activities for Mr. Specter and his wife, Joan, were told: "The key to success here is to note that they are world travelers and like nice accommodations," such as Claridge's in London.

For all that it is easy to lampoon a senator for fussiness on foreign trips, Mr. Specter has never let perks distract him from his devotion to duty. But even there his exacting standards can be seen from two different points of view. In 2002, Mr. Specter was on his way from Washington on a Metroliner to New York to catch a plane to the Middle East. His press secretary called him to tell him that the Senate would be holding four floor votes that night. A worried Mr. Specter told the conductor, "I just heard we were voting four times. Is it possible to go back to Washington?" The conductor no doubt knew that Sen. Specter serves on the committee that approves Amtrak's budget but had to inform him that the rest of the train's passengers couldn't have their schedules disrupted. Mr. Specter got off at a station outside Baltimore and took a cab back to Washington.

These anecdotes are politically noteworthy largely because they are so numerous. Over a career as long as Mr. Specter's, that can take a toll. Vincent Cannato, an expert on New York City politics and author of a biography of the late John Lindsay, says that Democrat Mark Green lost his 2001 race for mayor of New York to Michael Bloomberg in large part because "there was rarely a candidate so thoroughly disliked by people in both parties." In the course of a 20-year career, enough voters may have been rubbed the wrong way by Mr. Green's smug, know-it-all personality to account for his narrow 42,000-vote margin of defeat.

Should Arlen Specter tomorrow night suffer the rare indignity of becoming a losing incumbent, his defeat will no doubt have many fathers. But one surely will be his stubborn refusal to play well with constituents and colleagues.

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04/20/04: Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks making laws should be a part-time job. He's right
03/23/04: Bragging of foreign support doesn't win many votes in America
03/16/04: The Vanishing Center: In both political parties, the defense of moderation is no virtue
03/09/04: A JFK-NBC Ticket? If Kerry wants to make things interesting, he'll consider Tom Brokaw for veep
03/02/04: As Virginia mulls a tax hike, all Americans should guard their wallets
02/24/04: Marriage of Inconvenience: Why same-sex nuptials make Democrats nervous
02/10/04: Republican Rot: Is Congress's GOP majority becoming as corrupt as the Democrats were?
02/03/04: Moore Trouble: Alabama's former chief justice may challenge Bush for the Religious Right vote
01/13/04: Rage of a Relic: Paul O'Neill is angry that the world has passed him by
01/06/04: Unintended Consequence: How Terry McAuliffe and James Carville created Howard Dean
09/03/03: The Anti-Dean: Why Hillary opposes the Democratic front-runner
06/27/03: The California jurist who may replace Justice O'Connor
06/02/03: Clinton the Hoover: Bill, Hillary and the Dems' political vacuum
05/27/03: Nerd Nirvana: Students are to the right of the faculty even at the U of Chicago
05/16/03: GOPers gain in the land of Humphrey and Mondale
04/28/03: With the war won, it's time for Bush to master the Senate
04/04/03: Is "diversity" on campus even a goal worth pursuing?
03/05/03: Sunday morning with the BBC
02/28/03: Shut Up, They Explained: If you can censor this, thank a teacher
02/21/03: Unmitigated Gaul: Saddam isn't the only dictator with whom Jacques Chirac is cozy
02/18/03: Growing number of black officials breaking ranks by calling for a more honest approach to race relations
01/31/03: Half and Half: Republicans have achieved parity among American voters
11/11/02: Sobering Thoughts: The GOP's cup runneth over? No, it's half empty
10/31/02: Blue Gray: California's governor answers a Nobel Prize winner with obscenities
10/14/02: Bad Hair Day: Did Montana Dems exploit antigay prejudice?
10/11/02: The kill-everything senate
09/30/02: Schroeder did what it took to win--but at what cost to Germany?
08/22/02: Buh-Bye Bob, So Long Cynthia : No amount of shouting could've saved Barr or McKinney
07/29/02: GOP: Get Over Panic --- Dems are vulnerable on corporate scandals, too
07/17/02: Not Just an Average Joe: A black GOPer may give Rep. Eliot Engel a run for his money
07/15/02: The McCain Mutiny-II
07/01/02: Opening the Schoolhouse Door: The politicians can't stop school choice now
06/20/02: The Body' Bows Out --- American politics will be duller without Jesse Ventura
06/06/02: It's time for President Bush to stand up to California's senators
05/16/02: A Court Intrigue: Procedural funny business in a racial-preference case
05/14/02: Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
05/09/02: Newark, Zimbabwe!?
05/02/02: Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools
04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund