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The Fatal Moment

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Let us consider the brief and sad political career of Earl Vann, an ancient tale with a modern lesson.

Vann was a Philadelphia City Councilman in the 1970's who decided to endorse Mayor Frank Rizzo when he ran for re-election in 1975. The endorsement had value for the Rizzo campaign because Vann was an African American and blacks, as a rule, feared and despised the mayor.

It was a decision Vann could justify on any number of grounds: Rizzo was a shoo-in to win re-election. Vann could use the mayor's support and largesse in Council.  Rizzo promised to help Vann by adding his name to the Rizzo ticket to be circulated in white wards. In other words, Vann made a sensible, pragmatic political decision -- that also happened to be a fatal mistake.

By endorsing Rizzo, Vann tapped into the anger of Philadelphia's black community. He lost their support in an instant. Being carried on Rizzo's ticket did him no good.  White Rizzo supporters knew full well that Vann was black and they weren't inclined to vote for blacks. In the end, as one politician put, it, Vann was shot in the front by black voters and shot in the back by the Rizzo voters. He went down to defeat and ended his years as a salesman in a sporting goods store on Chestnut Street.

Which brings us to this year's U.S. Senate race and this question: Is Arlen Specter the new Earl Vann?

Did Specter make a sensible, pragmatic political decision -- that will turn out to be a fatal mistake?

As Dan Hirschhorn points out in his piece about Specter in Metropolis, Specter had good reasons to defect from the Republican party and join the Democrats last year

He was up for re-election and he was going to lose to former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican from Allentown who came thisclose to unseating Specter six years before.

It came at a crucial moment.  By joining the Democrats, Specter gave President Obama his 60th vote in the U.S. Senate, the number of votes needed to cut off filibusters.

So, Specter was damned by his fellow Republicans as "Benedict Arlen." But embraced by the President and Gov. Rendell.

For a while, it looked as if Specter would get a clear path to winning the Democratic nomination, but U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County has intervened and is running against the incumbent.

As Hirschhorn reports, voters in his new party aren't exactly enamored of this freshly-minted Democrat. Specter's approval ratings have sagged. The senator has busily been tacking leftwards --just as he tacked rightward in election years when he was a Republican - in an attempt to appeal to liberal Democrats.
No one in politics will count Specter out. They have too much respect for the man's resiliency and his will to win.

But, they are looking at this through the prism of politics. 

My feeling is that voters aren't judging Specter on political grounds - what position he takes on health care and global warming, etc -- but on personal ones. They aren't judging him as a politician, but as a man. What looked pragmatic in Washington looks opportunistic at home.  What looked sensible to the senator looks selfish to voters.

Specter never came out and said "It's all about me!" when he switched, but that's what a lot of people heard.

When Specter broke the news of his defection, it may have been the defining moment of his campaign - and a fatal one. He forced voters to take a measure of the man and the man came up short.

Now, we must wait and see what their final judgment will be.

 


Tom Ferrick Jr is senior editor of Metropolis.

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