Back in 1992, there was no senator that Democrats—particularly female Democrats—were more eager to beat than Arlen Specter, who the previous fall had listened to Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment and responded by accusing Hill of “flat-out perjury.”
And they almost did beat him—with a candidate named Lynn Yeakel, a previously unknown fund-raiser for women’s charities who was inspired to run after watching Specter browbeat Hill during her testimony in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The Yeakel-Specter campaign was a brutal, bitter affair, one that made Yeakel a folk hero to millions of women who saw themselves in her, the political novice who’d finally had enough of the “boys club” in Washington and who took it upon herself to do something about it. It also, for a time at least, cemented Specter as a villain to these same women, a clueless insider who resorted to the same brutal tactics against Yeakel that he’d used on Hill.
But now, with his sudden switch on Tuesday, Specter has joined the party of Yeakel and her supporters. The man who Yeakel once derided as “the ultimate symbol of the system” wants to be the next Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. She can’t possibly be happy with this, can she?
Actually, she is.
“Obviously, I’m delighted that he’s making this move,” Yeakel, now 67, said in a brief interview on Wednesday. “I think he’s always been more of a moderate.
“For one thing, he’s been a leader on investing in health issues. We were all delighted with the extra funding that he was able to put in the N.I.H. budget earlier this year. And he’s always been a supporter of a woman’s right to choose.”
Yeakel has been running the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at the Drexel University Medical Center in Philadelphia for the past six years; hence her interest in Specter’s record on health funding.
Some Democrats, unsettled by his various departures from party orthodoxy, are pushing for Specter to receive a primary challenge next year, and Representative Joe Sestak, a second-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, indicated some potential interest in running on Tuesday. But Yeakel envisions herself standing with Specter.
“Unless there’s somebody else in the Democratic primary who, for whatever reason, I found myself more in agreement with, I certainly would support him,” she said. “And I think a lot of people feel that way.” (She downplayed the likelihood of Sestak, her friend and congressman, getting in the race: “He hasn’t talked to me about running, and I would be very surprised if he did.”)
It’s true that time can heal wounds, but Yeakel’s is somewhat surprising. After all, the last time most of us from outside Pennsylvania heard from her was in that ’92 campaign, when she grew so frustrated by Specter’s campaign tactics that she refused to shake his hand after a debate, later explaining that “what Arlen Specter is doing to me is what people have done to women through history.”
Yeakel explained that the circumstances in 1992, when Specter overcame a 15-point deficit to eke out a victory, were different.
“My issues were [Specter’s] position on the Anita Hill testimony and also the fact that there were practically no women in the U.S. Senate when that controversy arose,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate the way that he questioned her.”
Before the Hill-Thomas drama, Specter’s biggest challenge was supposed to be from within his own party. Just a few years earlier, he had enraged Republicans by opposing Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
As the Hill-Thomas hearings convened, Specter was facing a primary challenge from an ultra-conservative state representative named Stephen Freind. Many believe that his badgering of Hill, whose testimony threatened to derail a Republican president’s court pick, was mainly an effort to make peace with the right. If it was, it worked: Specter crushed Freind in the G.O.P. primary.
But Specter didn’t account for the backlash potential among Democrats, and women in particular. The Hill-Thomas affair had transfixed the nation, with millions watching the hearings live on television. Women saw it as a typical whitewash: an all-male panel (the Senate Judiciary Committee) sniffing at Hill’s credible claims and siding with Thomas. Specter, thanks to his blistering interrogation, became their chief enemy.
The hearings took place in October ’91, leaving Yeakel little time to put a campaign together. She formally jumped in the Democratic race the following February, less than three months before the primary. Her name recognition was nonexistent and she stood at 1 percent in the polls. But that all changed with one memorable ad, in which Yeakel interrupted footage of Specter grilling Hill and asked: “Did this make you as angry as it made me?”
She won the five-way primary with 45 percent of the vote and became a national sensation overnight—the preeminent female candidate in what pundits were beginning to call “the year of the woman.” Polls put her ahead of Specter by double digits. The race seemed hers to lose.
But Specter fought back—hard and dirty. With twice as much money, he could afford to air television ads long before she could, and he made his attacks personal, criticizing Yeakel’s husband for belonging to a country club that had never had a black member, her father (a congressman from Virginia decades earlier) for his votes against civil rights, and her church’s minister for making a critical comment about the Israeli government. Yeakel pointed out that Specter was focusing on the men in her life, and not on her, but the attacks worked and her lead vanished.
Days before the election, they met for a contentious debate
“He has been diverting attention from the real issues of this campaign,” Yeakel, “and I want to tell you something. He is not running for prosecutor, he is running for the United States Senate. And he is not going to sit here and humiliate me the way he humiliated Anita Hill.”
“I’ve been waiting for that for a long time,” Specter said slyly.
“I know you have,” Yeakel replied.
Who would have thought that they’d end up on the same team?