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Heinz, Santorum, and the GOP’s Working Class Legacy In Pennsylvania

What do November’s midterm elections portend for Democrats and Republicans? This week, all eyes are on Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District as a potential bellwether.

In this Tuesday’s special election, Democrats hope a victory will signal their momentum to win back the U.S. House this year. Yet this week’s primary does not necessarily offer a clear vision of the immediate future. In this period of political tumult, the 18th District instead provides a historical lesson, reminding us that voters and electoral trends are far more complex than a “Trump base” or “Blue Wave” revolt. As James Broussard, director of Lebanon Valley College’s Center for Political History, observed, “It’s appropriate that so much national attention is focused on this race, because a couple of 18th District races had a historic impact in the past,” said Broussard. He noted that the district “is where both John Heinz and Rick Santorum, two very different Pennsylvania Republicans, got their start in national politics.”

The district’s boundaries have been reconfigured over the decades, and are set for a more dramatic redrawing in the upcoming general election. But today, as in the past, they principally encompass Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs and rural portions west and east of the city. The area remains a demographic reflection of 1970s America—an assortment of tony hamlets, working-class towns, and rustic areas largely unchanged with the passage of time. This part of western Pennsylvania, while categorically post-industrial, has not experienced the dramatic level of socio-economic change impacting regions further east beyond the Susquehanna River.

The district currently registers 70,000 more Democrats than Republicans, but for the last fifteen years it was represented by GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, whose scandalous downfall in late 2017 resulted in this special election. If the Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, prevails over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, the conventional wisdom holds that the district’s voters—who flocked to Donald Trump in 2016—are rejecting the policies of Trump’s White House. While a level of disillusionment with Trump certainly exists, many voters are exercising their independent judgment about the candidates, and in Pennsylvania, ticket splitting is still a frequent electoral phenomenon. Ideological agnosticism lingers, with voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 having favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rick Santorum, who represented the area from 1991 until entering the U.S. Senate in 1995, also conveyed working class frustrations as a competitive presidential candidate in the 2012 Republican primary. Santorum’s 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works, later influenced Trump’s own campaign message. The 18th District arguably served as Santorum’s political terrarium, where he cultivated his understanding of blue-collar voters.

Among Santorum’s leading critics during his 1994 senate run was Teresa Heinz Kerry, the widow of another product of the 18th District. John Heinz represented the area in Congress from 1971 until his statewide Senate victory in 1976. (That campaign had provided for Santorum’s own entry into the political arena, as a Penn State student campaigning for Heinz.)

Heinz, who was a moderate Republican, embodied a different period in American politics, one devoid of the ideological instability corroding both parties. His success in the 18th District, bipartisan support as a senator, and rise as a national political figure, offer a historical perspective worth revisiting in today’s hostile environment.

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An heir to a food-processing empire, Heinz’s background was patrician by any American’s standards. Born in 1938 in Pittsburgh, Heinz grew up in San Francisco after his parents divorced. An only child, Heinz spent summers in Pennsylvania with his father, chairman of the H.J. Heinz Company. Heinz’s education included boarding school at Exeter, a history degree from Yale, and an MBA from Harvard. He met his future wife, Teresa, during a summer spent in Geneva. After college, he returned to Pittsburgh to work for his family’s company, married, and had three sons. An intellect, philanthropist, and arts enthusiast, Heinz taught at Carnegie Mellon University, endowed community endeavors, and collected paintings that were later exhibited at the National Gallery of Art.

Throughout the 1960s, Heinz became active in state Republican politics. Heinz’s exposure to politics began in 1964 when he briefly worked for Sen. Hugh Scott, another moderate Republican who he would go on to succeed in 1976. In 1971, Heinz announced his candidacy for the 18th Congressional District after the sudden death of Republican Rep. Robert J. Corbett. Heinz established his campaign headquarters in Sharpsburg, where his great-grandfather began packing foodstuffs in the late 1860s. During the special election, Heinz advocated views that resonated with a cross-section of voters who had been shaped by the New Deal era. He supported withdrawal from Vietnam and called for a federal income tax cut for families earning less than $12,000 each year. Democrats significantly outnumbered Republicans in the district, but Heinz won by a large margin a victory, and at 33, became the youngest Republican member of Congress.

When asked to comment on his first 100 days in office, Heinz said that he “attempted to wear no label, neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘conservative’ nor ‘pro-labor’ nor ‘pro-management.’” Maintaining his commitment to pragmatism, Heinz stated that he “acted in each case on the basis of what I believe is right for my constituents, for our state and for our country.” It was this sentiment that made Heinz politically popular in Pennsylvania. He personified a civility that resonated with colleagues and voters from both parties. This approach proved favorable when Sen. Scott announced his retirement in 1975.

In the 1976 Republican Senate primary, Heinz defeated Arlen Specter, Philadelphia’s former District Attorney and later his colleague in the Senate. In the general election, Heinz narrowly defeated Rep. Bill Green III, a powerful Democrat from Philadelphia.

Heinz’s three Senate terms were marked by his moderation. His interests ranged from environmental protection and regulatory reform to improving elderly care and protecting the nation’s interests in global commerce. Heinz expressed views that triggered support or opposition from both parties. One of his most expressed interests was guarding Pennsylvania’s economy when the post-industrial transition imperiled Pittsburgh’s steel industry and the state’s once prosperous communities.  Heinz was also vocal on trade and antitrust issues that have been revived by the Trump presidency. As a senator in 1984, he criticized the Reagan administration’s rejection of tariffs and quotas for the steel industry. In the mid-1970s, Heinz chaired the House Republican Task Force on Antitrust and Regulatory Reform.

Mark DeSantis, a Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and adjunct faculty member of Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, worked on Heinz’s staff in the late 1980s. DeSantis lamented the absence of moderating forces in contemporary politics, observing that polarization is occurring in Pennsylvania. Present discourse is shaped by battle lines and angry rhetoric. Recalling Heinz’s approach, DeSantis said the Senator was “about getting things done.”

According to DeSantis, Heinz “had the courage of his convictions. When he believed in something, he stuck by it, even if it made him unpopular.” DeSantis remembers Heinz’s commitment to serving citizens. “He was very sensitive about Pennsylvania being treated fairly,” DeSantis said, “and making sure that the state was not blindsided by legislation” that would adversely impact the state’s economy or its citizens. “His kind is so desperately needed right now.”

DeSantis recounted Heinz’s friendship with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York’s longtime Democratic Senator. Both Heinz and Moynihan were fiercely intellectual, possessed encyclopedic knowledge, and held diverse political views. “Those two gentlemen personified, in my opinion, what democracy should be,” said DeSantis. They engaged in “thoughtful, sharp debate on the issues with respect for each other’s opinions and an acknowledgment that the whole point of the debate was to advance the cause of this country and its citizens.”

The way Heinz and Moynihan led their careers is a significant departure from the present Congressional ecosystem. DeSantis notes that the Senators didn’t turn their debates into “bitter personal disagreement or the belief that the opposing party was trying to destroy the country.” This level of civility existed in Congress even during the 1980s, but slowly faded with the proliferation of cable news, public scandals like Sen. Gary Hart’s alleged affair, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994, Clinton’s White House tumult, and finally the foreign and economic policy failures of the 2000s. These events paralleled the rise of social media, the fracture of civic and religious institutions, the decline of countless communities, and the ideological revolts in both parties.

Heinz’s career tragically ended in April 1991 when his chartered plane collided in the air with a helicopter in suburban Philadelphia, killing the senator and six other people. Heinz’s untimely death at 52 shocked Pennsylvania and the nation. He was a top figure in national politics, securing his place as a future presidential contender. Had Heinz lived, he could have challenged Clinton’s ascendance and served as an influential and moderating voice within his party. Harris Wofford, a leading Democratic figure, won the special election over former Governor Dick Thornburgh to serve out Heinz’s term. Wofford was then defeated in 1994 by Santorum.

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The 18th District, which under new boundaries is slated to disappear by Pennsylvania’s May primary, has trended Republican for several election cycles. Democrats hope that a victory will signify redemption following their party’s failures in 2016. But the district’s electorate, like any voting base, is more complex than what is commonly presented. Lamb, the Democratic candidate, is running as a conservative sympathetic toward Trump’s views. A former Marine and assistant U.S. Attorney, he hails from a Democratic dynasty in Pittsburgh-based Allegheny County. His grandfather, Thomas F. Lamb, served as the state Senate’s Majority Leader in the early 1970s, just as Heinz began holding elected office.

Lamb’s Republican opponent, Saccone, entered the state House as part of the Tea Party wave in 2010. A retired Air Force counterintelligence officer, Saccone has claimed that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” But Lamb’s campaign seeks to establish that a Blue Dog-style Democrat can still win traditional Democratic voters. If Lamb wins, it remains to be seen how the national Democratic apparatus will receive an understated and conservative member of their party. Democrats face an ongoing identity crisis, one which will become even more prominent if Lamb defeats Saccone.

If Heinz were alive, DeSantis believes he would be disappointed by the bitterness, along with the lacking substance, of this special election. Heinz’s effectiveness stemmed from bipartisanship and the ability to deliver for his constituents.

Of course polarization has always existed, and has shaped gerrymandered maps, including the state’s newest districts, which were recently approved by the elected Democratic majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But if anything is to be learned in 2018, perhaps it’s that voters yearn for some level of civility. Regardless of next week’s outcome, the 18th District’s voters remind us that it is possible for politicians to hold nuanced views that don’t easily fit into either party’s purist platforms. It was Heinz’s mastery of this non-ideological approach that endeared him to his first constituency and eventually all of Pennsylvania.

Charles F. McElwee III is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CFMcElwee. [1]

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Heinz, Santorum, and the GOP’s Working Class Legacy In Pennsylvania"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On March 12, 2018 @ 1:25 am

Thank you for this nice slice of political history:

“The way Heinz and Moynihan led their careers is a significant departure from the present Congressional ecosystem. DeSantis notes that the Senators didn’t turn their debates into “bitter personal disagreement or the belief that the opposing party was trying to destroy the country.” This level of civility existed in Congress even during the 1980s, but slowly faded with the proliferation of cable news, public scandals like Sen. Gary Hart’s alleged affair, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994, Clinton’s White House tumult, and finally the foreign and economic policy failures of the 2000s. These events paralleled the rise of social media, the fracture of civic and religious institutions, the decline of countless communities, and the ideological revolts in both parties.”

There was always an element of crude animosity and even violence in Congress, but this was from a minority and fortunately the violence was the exception. Of course, most members came from the moneyed and educated classes, so they had many personal attributes and ideals in common to off-set their political differences, and deals could always be made to trade for support of pet pork barrel projects. They shared patrician sensibilities, even if they had plebeian roots. There was good and bad in this tradition, but there is no doubt we are in uncharted territory today.

The current 24/7 on-line scrutiny, cable blow-hards, and demands for ‘purity’ have damaged the parliamentary system that was 1000 years in the making. I fear it will be at least another generation before a new working system evolves.

#2 Comment By One Guy On March 12, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

I have trouble believing someone who claims a book influenced Trump’s campaign message. That would require Trump to read a book, which is beyond belief.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On March 12, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

With respect to President Trump’s protective tariffs on steel and aluminum and Tuesday’s Pennsylvania election:

On March 9th the American Conservative’s “Of Note” featured TAC Editor-at-large Daniel McCarthy’s excellent March 8th New York Times article “The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economics.”

On March 10th Daniel McCarthy discussed his NYT article on SiriusXM Radio – a 15-minute segment that is well worth listening to:

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#4 Comment By Kent On March 12, 2018 @ 3:54 pm

“The current 24/7 on-line scrutiny, cable blow-hards, and demands for ‘purity’ have damaged the parliamentary system that was 1000 years in the making. I fear it will be at least another generation before a new working system evolves.”

I think Congress is just reverting to the mean of its behavior prior to the Great Depression and WWII. That era was so controlled by New Deal economic thought as well as massive economic prosperity that the Democrats could completely control the country. Republicans had to stay centrist in order to get elected.

As the Democrats abandoned the New Deal, labor unions and turned to identity politics, it allowed Republicans to move to the right. Congress is now bifurcated along ideological lines by party. And compromise never seems to be an option.

Congress seems to more resemble the Congress prior to the Civil War. Bifurcated by region more than ideology though.

#5 Comment By Robert On March 12, 2018 @ 4:51 pm

Excellent journalism and a lesson for many of us. The current 3-way polarization (Trump vs traditional Republicans vs Democrats) has, until now, focussed on character assassination rather than on policy and the need to put American workers and businesses ahead of private interests and wealth. Mainstream media and median “consultants” have largely ignored policy issues, and have instead been subsumed in largely invented Russian meddling and collusion. In substance, if Democrats and Republicans act in good faith and put American workers ahead of their private interests and indecent profits, there is very little difference between Democrats, Republicans and Donald Trump. They want good jobs for Americans, and they want a vibrant American business community. Trumps policies were designed to do this, and, so far, they are working. It is a good sign that many Democrats and Republicans vehemently oppose his policies on the grounds that they go against their principles (honed undoubtedly over generations). The problem the American people faced was that for the past 15 or 20 years, these principles were gradually destroying the US economy. The sooner Democrats and Republicans understand this and support Trump, the better it will be for America. It provides some hope that this melding of policy is germinating in the 18th District of Pennsylvania.

#6 Comment By Youknowho On March 14, 2018 @ 9:16 pm

Heinz would not have dreamed of gutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax cuts. That’s why he kept being reelected.