Arlen Specter Started Out His Career as a Democrat

The Republican Turned Democrat switched parties in 1965 also.


So Arlen Specter is a Democrat now. But this isn't the first time the Pennsylvania politician has had a "D" next to his name. He started out his long political career as a Democrat but then switched parties in 1965 to run for district attorney of Philadelphia. He recounted the story to C-SPAN's Brian Lamb in a 2001 Booknotes interview.

Here's part of the transcript:

BRIAN LAMB: What year did you change from being a Democrat to a Republican?

Sen. SPECTER: 1965. I had—I had been interested in being district attorney of Philadelphia. And Philadelphia was a very corrupt city. And the chairman of the Democratic Party said, 'We don't want a young Tom Dewey in the DA's office.' I had just finished investigating magistrates, the corrupt minor judiciary of Philadelphia, where they extracted bribes from people to get discharged, and they went after gays. They had a theater called the Family Theater on the East Market Street where gays assembled, and the vice squad would go and arrest them and take them before magistrates, who would extort large sums of money to—to discharge them or then, if they didn't pay off, to hold them. And I had convicted quite a number of magistrates in this—in this probe, and the head of the Democratic Party didn't like thatbecause these were a lot of very powerful political leaders.

And the Republican leader, Bill Meehan, came to me and asked me if I'd consider running for district attorney on the Republican ticket. And the nomination wasn't worth a whole lot because, the year before, Lyndon Johnson had beaten Goldwater in Philadelphia by 640,000 to 200,000, or a 440,000 majority. But I thought it over and I considered DA a—really a non-political office, and I—I agreed to run on the condition that I would not change my registration, that I have a free hand in selecting assistants. And I was elected DA on the Republican ticket, sort of a fusion ticket.

And I tell the story in my book about Joe Clark. I go on to see Senator Clark when I w . . .

LAMB: A Democrat. Sen.

SPECTER: . . . a Democrat, when I wanted to run in the primary. S—Senator Clark had written a letter—this goes back to before I took the nomination on the Republican ticket, and he wrote a letter suggesting of me and others for his DA. And, of course, that was the kiss of death. So I went to Senator Clark and I said, 'Senator Clark, I'd be willing to take on a tough primary fight if you'll help me raise some money.' He said, 'Oh, I can't do that.' And I said, 'Well, maybe I'd do it if you'd come out for me and help me cam'—'Well, I couldn't do that,' he said, 'but I'll vote for you.' You know, big deal. Here's a vote already. So the Saturday before the election, he called me up, and I was campaigning around town and I returned the call. And he said, 'Arlen,I think you're going to win this election.' He said, 'Don't do anything about registration until you talk to me.' So I went to see him after the election, and he said—he said, `You ought to stay a Democrat.'  And I said, 'Senator Clark, up until now, I hadn't decided.' But Bill Meehan and the Republicans: no strings attached, very comfortable, independent DA's office. And I decided to try to bring back a second major party in Philadelphia, which I think is very badly needed. So I changed my registration. I haven't succeeded, Brian, but I'm still working on it.

And the full transcript of the January 2001 Booknotes interview is here.