Last night’s upset of Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) by Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA) in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat suggests a potential win for women and families, if in fact Sestak wins the general election in the fall.
Specter, a five-term Senator supported in the primary by the White House, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and many others in the party establishment, was until recently a Republican. That is until he apparently decided that being a Democrat might increase his chances of getting reelected for another term, as underscored in his own words taped in this ad from the Sestak campaign.
Specter’s words, actions, and recent conversion led many to consider him a DINO (Democrat in Name Only).
But if Sestak wins, and remains true to the principles on which he campaigned, his election could be a net gain for women, families and the rights of LGBT, African American and Latino populations, because he would be replacing a Senator known for being mercurial especially on issues of women’s rights, gay rights, and a range of civil rights and sexual and reproductive justice issues.
Since 2002, for example, Specter has received mixed scores from a wide range of organizations focused on social justice and rights issues. He received a rating of 60 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union, indicating a mixed civil rights voting record (Dec 2002); a 67 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign, indicating a mixed record on gay rights (Dec 2006); and a 32 percent rating from the NAACP, indicating an anti-affirmative-action stance (Dec 2006).
In 2003 Specter received a rating of 21 percent from NARAL Pro-Choice America, which rose to a 90 percent rating in 2009. This strongly implies what some have always suspected: that Specter was not voting his “own” positions, but the positions of the current administration in power when it came to issues like a woman’s right to choose and abstinence-only funding. In 2003, for example, Specter’s vote was the one that sealed the deal on forcing an abstinence-only agenda within PEPFAR programs, a vote that arguably resulted in untold numbers of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among women and girls.
Sestak, by contrast, has a strong–and consistent–record of support for progressive values in all of these areas.
He has voted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and to increase enforcement against anti-gay hate crimes. He has voted in favor of paid parental leave, to increase economic support for low-income, unemployed and underemployed people, and to increase funding for education. He supported comprehensive sexual health education. And Sestak has a 100 percent rating from NARAL. While he obviously has spent less time than Specter in national office, at no time (yet) has he appeared to vote against the values he espouses.
Moreover, he openly campaigned on his positions, and so voters know what they got when they voted for him.
What is clear is that to realize a progressive agenda in law and policy as much as in rhetoric, we need policymakers who vote the talk. And right now, the White House and the current Congress aren’t doing all that well on these issues. But so far, Joe Sestak has in fact voted his (stated) principles. If he becomes Pennsylvania’s junior Senator in November, his election may well be one important victory for the basic rights of Americans, irrespective of sex, gender identity, race or class.