Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania senator who switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party, died at his home in Philadelphia on October 14.
The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Shanin said. Specter had previously fought Hodgkin’s disease and survived a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery.
A moderate Republican, Specter often dissented from his party’s platforms, supporting abortion rights, affirmative action, and most gay rights issues, although he was opposed to same-sex marriage.
Arlen Specter was born on Feb. 12, 1930 in Wichita, Kan., the fourth and youngest child of Harry and Lillian Specter. Harry Specter, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, moved his family back and forth between the East Coast and the Midwest seeking work before settling in Kansas as a peddler. By the time Arlen was 5, he too was peddling, selling cantaloupes door to door by his father’s side.
The Specters later moved to Philadelphia – “so my sister could meet and marry a nice Jewish boy,” Specter explained – where he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1951. After a stint in the Air Force, he enrolled in Yale University where he obtained his law degree in 1956. Specter became the district attorney of Philadelphia in 1965, a position he held until losing reelection in 1973.
Early in his career, Specter served as assistant counsel for the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In a still-controversial finding, Specter helped craft what is known as the single-bullet theory, which contended that Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, riding in the same car, were hit by the same bullet.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980, serving five terms before deciding to switch to the Democratic Party on April 28, 2009, citing the Republican Party’s shift to the far right. He lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak, who was defeated in the general election by Pat Toomey.
During his time in the Senate, he was known for being stubborn and gruff, earning the nickname “snarlin’ Arlen.”
“For over three decades, I watched his political courage accomplish great feats and was awed by his physical courage to never give up. Arlen never walked away from his principles and was at his best when they were challenged,” said Vice President Joe Biden, with whom Specter often rode the train home from Washington, D.C., when Biden also served in the Senate.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said, “Arlen wanted to die in the Senate, and in many ways he should have.”
“Arlen Specter was always a fighter,” President Obama said in a statement, calling Specter “fiercely independent” and citing his “toughness and determination” in dealing with his personal health struggles. Obama ordered U.S. flags at the White House and other public buildings flown at half-staff on October 16, the day of Specter’s funeralin Penn Valley, Pa. He was buried in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Besides his son Shanin, Specter is survived by his wife of 59 years, Joan; a sister, Shirley Kety; another son, Stephen; and four grandchildren.