Arlen Specter: A valued mentor, advocate and constituent

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Arlen Specter was tenacious. One thing people forget is that before he was elected to the Senate, he lost for mayor, he lost for governor. Everyone counted him out. People said he was washed up, and then he picked himself up. We should reflect on the difficult times that he overcame.


Arlen Specter was a moderate who championed the middle ground long after that became unfashionable. He was a fighter for Pennsylvania and for Philadelphia, especially for federal investment in science, medicine and infrastructure.

Senator Specter’s critics took what was his strength, aggressively seeking out that middle ground, and turned it against him. His courageous vote to spur our nation’s economic recovery ultimately cost him his seat – and it stands as a monument to his courage and impact. He did more than throw his arm around President Obama’s shoulders like a handful of other Republicans. He cast the vote that turned the entire U.S. economy around.

That vote illustrates something else about Arlen’s character and approach. He knew how to bargain. He told the president he would support the Recovery Act if it came down below $900 billion instead of $1 trillion. And he insisted on $10 billion in stimulus money for the National Institutes of Health. And that was in the bill for the NIH – merit based awards, good science, but $10 billion that wouldn’t have been in there otherwise.

Those grants affected health care and research for tens of thousands of people who maybe never heard of Arlen Specter. The leaders at NIH knew who was working for them. They’ll tell you: Arlen Specter saved lives all across the United States.

A decade before the Recovery Act, there was GEAR UP – Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. It was college-readiness legislation I developed as a young member of Congress (who happened to have Senator Specter as one of my Philadelphia constituents). The aim was to help low-income and under-served students from sixth to 12th grade in our public schools prepare for college – to immerse themselves in a college-going culture that is common enough for students in well-off schools, but has seemed unattainable for poor kids in urban and rural schools.

There was a smattering of Republican support in 1998, but nothing like Arlen Specter. He fought for the program in the Senate, steering it through to President Clinton’s desk, and made sure the dollars were available. When President Clinton signed GEAR UP into law, Senator Specter was at my side.
Today – 13 years and 12 million students and almost $4 billion later – GEAR UP is a coast to coast success. There are GEAR UP programs, locally and statewide, in 49 states, Washington D.C., U.S. territories, and it’s a model for burgeoning programs overseas. Once again, millions of youngsters who might never find Senator Arlen Specter’s name in their history or civics texts owe him the debt of gratitude.

The passing of Senator Arlen Specter is a time of sadness and civic mourning, especially in this Kansas kid’s adopted home town of Philadelphia. But it is also an occasion to reflect on his out-sized impact. My family and I mourn the Senator and we will keep the Specter family in our thoughts and prayers.

Fattah has represented Pennsylvania’s Second District, parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, since his election in 1994. He is ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies.