LGBT groups hailed former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter for his support for LGBT rights upon his passing on Sunday despite the long-term lawmaker’s controversial end in politics after he shifted party affiliation from Republican to Democratic.
On Sunday, major media outlets reported Specter had died of complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphonia at the age of 82 in his home in Philadelphia. In 2005, Specter announced he was suffering from the disease, but continued serving as he underwent chemotherapy.
Specter for most of his career as a senator was a Republican and was known as a moderate voice within his party.
In 1996, Specter was among the Republicans who voted in favor of a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but also voted for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. In 2004, Specter voted for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage throughout the country, but when this measure came before the Senate again in 2006, Specter — along with Sen. Judd Gregg — reversed his position and voted “no.”
As his re-election approached in 2010, Specter announced he could no longer be part of a party that he said was too conservative and switched his affiliation to Democrat. At the time, he also adopted a uniformly pro-LGBT voting record, not only voting for hate crimes protection legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, but calling for DOMA repeal. In a piece in The Huffington Post, Specter called DOMA a “relic of a more tradition-bound time and culture.”
However, after changing parties, Specter ultimately lost the Democratic nomination in his bid for re-election to former Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost in the general election to current Sen. Pat Toomey.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement Specter’s support for hate crimes protections and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal “was critical” as was his decision to change his position on the Federal Marriage Amendment.
“While we disagreed with his support for some conservative judicial nominees which will leave a lasting negative impact on our community, he was willing to work across party lines to get things done,” Griffin said.
Griffin added he had the opportunity to host Specter in Los Angeles while working with him to raise funds for stem cell research “at a time when it was difficult for a Republican senator to speak out.”
LGBT political groups had kind words for Specter while refraining from commenting about his change in party affiliation toward the end of his career.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, commended Specter for his work and his partnership with his organization, but also recalled a personal experience with the late senator.
“Sen. Specter was a longtime ally of Log Cabin Republicans and a public servant committed to the rule of law,” Cooper said. “I remember traveling with him during the Bush administration and his keen interest in the U.S. support of civil society organizations abroad.”
Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said Specter was an important moderate voice as a Republican, but needed to become a Democrat to continue to serve as the voice of reason.
“As a Republican, Arlen Specter was a moderate and often stood with Democrats on LGBT issues,” Davis said. “In 2009, he realized he was the last of a dying breed of reasonable Republicans in the GOP and joined the Democratic Party.”
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum, had kind words for the late senator.
“He was a poor Jewish boy from Kansas,” Lazin said. “Whatever he made in the world, really was as a result of his remarkable intelligence and work ethic.”
Over his course of his career as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Lazin said he knew Specter on a personal level. The not-yet senator was an honorary campaign chair for Lazin and would advise him in meetings that took place about once a week.