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Bob Casey: A Campaign Profile

Outside the party mainstream

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Bob Casey was already heading to the rally when he got the word from Nashville.

The vice president would be in fashionably casual clothes -- a taupe shirt and brown slacks. Democrats joining him on the Moon Area High School stage should dress accordingly. Casey, traveling in his invariable working uniform of dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie, had just enough time to stop at the mall up the hill to grab the required regular-guy raiment.

Bob Casey waits in a hallway to be introduced during the christening of the headquarters in the United Steelworkers Building, Downtown. At left is volunteer Frank Mountford of Wilkins. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

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Casey, Wagner stump here

A profile of Ed Rendell, Casey's rival for the Democratic nomination, from last Sunday's Post-Gazette.

"I am not one of those who has taken the Naomi Wolf course in attire," Casey recalled, referring to the consultant who reportedly tutored Vice President Al Gore on how to project an alpha male persona.

In clothes as in politics, Casey is not consumed with the latest fashion. He doesn't think his party should be, either. And he thinks that attitude is part of the reason that he was the only statewide candidate who stood on that stage with Gore that day who ended up in the winning column when Pennsylvanians went out to vote in November 2000.

Casey's traditional views, his record as auditor general, and his name all contributed to the landslide re-election victory he won a few months after that rally. In his race for the Democratic nomination for governor, he draws support for all of those reasons. But for the party and union hierarchies that have flocked to his banner in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, one more quality stands out. Casey is a proven winner in a state where statewide victories have become increasingly rare for Democrats.

"We've lost 25 out of 32 in 10 years," he said recently. "We're aiming to turn that around this year."

"This is the guy who can win for us," Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio said in introducing Casey at a recent rally.

Over the past decade or so, a thirst for victories at the national level has led many Democrats to seek success by moving to the middle on economic issues, such as trade and welfare, while maintaining a more liberal course on social issues. His opponent in this race, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, is among those who championed that school of party thought as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee through the last years of the Clinton administration.

Casey thinks they got it wrong. The soft-spoken scion of the late governor says that, philosophically and tactically, his party will do best by returning to its roots.

"As a national party, they were trying to increase our success by being more like the Republican Party," Casey said. "You might as well not have a Democratic Party." He said he was on opposite sides of national Democrats on a number of issues.


Age: 41

Hometown: Scranton

Education: B.A., College of the Holy Cross, 1982; J.D., Catholic University Law School, 1988

Career: Taught fifth grade in Philadelphia for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps; lawyer, Haggerty McDonnell & O'Brien; elected Pennsylvania auditor general, 1996

Family: Wife, Terese Foppiano Casey; four children, Elyse, Caroline, Julia and Marena


Casey disagreed with the Clinton administration's embrace of welfare reform and trade liberalization measures such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I couldn't have voted for that," Casey said of the 1996 welfare overhaul, passed in the year he first ran for office. "You were saying, 'Let's make people more self-sufficient,' but you weren't giving them the tools to do that. ... A lot of Democrats nationally and in the state say, 'You're crazy. We should be able to move in that other direction,' but I just don't agree with them."

Agreements such as NAFTA, he said, have hurt Pennsylvania workers.

"I think on some of these national issues, I would be out of the Washington mainstream," he said recently.

As political heroes, he cites figures from his party's past. In addition to his father, who was governor from 1987 to 1995, he mentioned former President Harry S. Truman. He rarely gives a speech without offering a quote from former Vice President Hubert Humphrey on society's obligations to help those in the twilight and in the dawn of life.

While Casey thinks his party has migrated too far on economic and social issues, notably abortion, he thinks many national Democrats haven't moved far enough from party orthodoxy. Casey, as his late father did, opposes abortion. If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe vs. Wade, he would be willing to sign a bill that would outlaw the procedure in the state except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life. Casey's personal view is that abortion should be banned except in cases where the mother's health is threatened.

Casey, 41, graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1982. After college, he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, teaching fifth grade in an inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia. In 1988, he graduated from law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He practiced law in Scranton while working for his father's campaigns before seeking the auditor general's job in 1996.

The broad labor and party support that he enjoys this year is a sharp contrast to the picture Casey faced in his first race. In a four-way Democratic primary, the party's state committee and many labor unions lined up behind Tom Foley, who had served in Casey's father's Cabinet. The spurning of Casey was widely viewed as retribution for his father's decision, in the 1994 elections, not to actively support either of the Democrats' chief candidates, former Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel, who was hoping to succeed Casey, or former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford.

"We wouldn't be in this mess if we had a governor who worked for Democrats," Bill George, the president of the state AFL-CIO, said just before the 1996 primary. "It's payback time on Tuesday."

Payback never happened. In a crowded field, Casey fought through to victory with 37 percent of the vote to Foley's 34 percent. Casey won a comfortable victory in the general election. George, like many of the labor leaders who resisted Casey in 1996, is now firmly in his corner.

Earlier this month, as Casey opened his Pittsburgh headquarters, it was an enthusiastic George who introduced him to a crowd of party and union officials.

Similar support was on display last week in a meeting room at the Iron City Brewery in Lawrenceville. Casey folded his tall frame into a small chair, listening with earnest attention as speaker after speaker described the difficulties of working people struggling to make ends meet, frustrated by health-care bureaucracies.

Casey's blue suit was a dark island in a sea of bright purple T-shirts bearing the logo of the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU has contributed $475,000 to his campaign treasury, motivated in equal measures by its hostility to Rendell and its support for Casey.

Casey walked to the front of the brick-walled room and sounded a central theme of his campaign.

"It's important for the governor not only to stand up for working people but to stand in the shoes of working families, to understand what you're going through every day," he said.

Casey is not a dynamic speaker. On the stump, his style is marked by quiet humor and earnestness rather than soaring rhetoric. But he clearly connected with this audience, speaking with feeling about the trials of double shifts and understaffing.

Rendell, the former mayor, offers the politics of experience; Casey, the politics of empathy.

In the office that had brought his father to statewide prominence, Casey has focused on some of the issues he discussed with the SEIU group -- the quality of care in state nursing homes, the need for more effective background checks on child care workers.

Casey was 9 years old when his father was sworn in as auditor general.

"I was inspired by what he did as auditor general," he said. "He took an office that didn't have much impact and he totally transformed it. He made it not just relevant, not just effective in state government; he made it make a difference in people's lives."

Tough memories accompany the inspiring ones. Alongside his father's victories, Casey witnessed a string of losses. The elder Casey lost races for governor three times before being elected on his fourth attempt in 1986.

"It was very difficult as a child. You can't understand that people wouldn't want to vote for your father."

"I think one of the best things I learned from that experience -- particularly in '78, because by then I understood it a little bit better -- was that he handled it so well. I've seen candidates attribute their losses to everything from the weather to someone double-crossing them to the party didn't do something -- all kinds of reasons. He never did that. He just said, 'We lost, it wasn't meant to be and we go on from there.' "

Publicly, at least, Casey is unfailingly polite. When a minivan pulled up to take him and a few companions from one campaign stop to another, he contorted his 6-foot-2 frame into the cramped third seat, leaving the more comfortable spots to others. Working the room at a political breakfast, he apologized for interrupting the meal of an obviously delighted older woman.

But in politics, being nice gets you only so far. To get as far as he wants to go, the two-term auditor general doesn't shy away from confrontational tactics. There's a good-cop, bad-cop dynamic in the Casey campaign. He's the good cop, generally criticizing Rendell in civil, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tones. His campaign aides, including his energetic brother, Matt, don't conceal their sharp elbows.

To them, Rendell is "Fast Eddie," constantly spouting his "Philly hustle."

Casey's campaign organization traces its lineage to the team of James Carville and Paul Begala, who quarterbacked the late Gov. Casey's victories. Matt Casey said their current campaign manager, Jim Andrews, came strongly recommended by Begala, among others.

But just as Begala and Carville judiciously borrowed from the tough tactics of Republican operatives such as the late Lee Atwater, the current campaign has learned a thing or two from the campaign that won the White House -- if not the popular vote -- two years ago.

Rendell, according to one Casey news release after another, is a "serial prevaricator," one step down from the "serial exaggerator" tag that the Bush campaign constantly affixed to Gore. Rendell, Matt Casey has charged, "is a man who will say anything and do anything to get elected," the exact mantra that Bush operatives repeatedly used in describing the former vice president.

Casey was the only candidate for governor who declined to promise to avoid negative campaigning this year. Rendell and Attorney General Mike Fisher, the Republican whom one of them will face in November, agreed to such a pledge.

Last week, the Casey campaign began broadcasting the first critical commercial of the primary season, attacking Rendell's record on education in Philadelphia.

Casey calls the notion of a pledge a meaningless gimmick. He argues that a tough, sharply contested campaign can benefit not only the voters but the candidates themselves.

"I think voters expect that," Casey said. "Part of my job as a candidate is to point out problems in his record, things that he's said where we think he should be challenged, and that's why his idea of a pledge is really preposterous."

Another virtue of campaign combat, Casey said, is its function as a boot camp for governing, forcing scrutiny on issues and forcing would-be governors to make pressure-cooker decisions.

"Any day, you can wake up as governor and find yourself staring in the face a crisis you hadn't anticipated," Casey said. "You have to be prepared to make difficult decisions.

"To a certain extent, a campaign prepares you for that. You're dealing with a whole variety of decisions and pressures, and you're dealing with those issues under stress. ... That's part of the process that a leader has to undergo."

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