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Silenced in '92, late Gov. Casey to get center stage

Tuesday, August 15, 2000

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

LOS ANGELES -- At another Democratic convention eight years ago, the phone rang in the hotel suite of an angry man.


More on the Democratic convention at Election 2000.


Al Gore was on the line. He wanted to speak to -- to apologize to -- the late Gov. Robert P. Casey for the public shunning Casey received from his party during those four days in New York City.

Casey, an ardent opponent of abortion, had been denied the chance to address the convention to express his disagreement with its unqualified support for abortion rights. And in the late governor's mind, the snub was compounded when the convention organizers, who had ignored him, did manage to find a spot behind the podium for Kathy Taylor, an abortion-rights proponent who had supported Barbara Hafer, the Republican candidate whom Casey had defeated in a landslide.

Last Friday, Vice President Gore made another call to another Bob Casey -- Auditor General Bob Casey Jr., the late governor's son. Would he and his brother, Pat, be willing to take the convention stage Thursday to introduce a filmed tribute to the governor, who died May 30?

The gesture can't be mistaken as a change in position by either Gore or the party, both of which remain unambiguously in favor of abortion rights. But it does seem to signal a change in attitude toward dissent on that issue by a party that, like the Republicans in Philadelphia, is eager to portray itself as a big tent, capacious enough to accommodate divergent views.

Bob Casey Sr. -- "the real Bob Casey," as he came to be known in his campaigns -- had a long and sometimes-contentious political career. But in his autobiography, "Fighting for Life," few episodes are as charged with rancor as the events surrounding the convention that nominated President Clinton.

Earlier that summer, Casey had pressed the Democrats' platform committee for some gesture of acceptance toward his pro-life views. As the New York gathering approached, he wrote to Ron Brown, then the Democratic chairman, requesting a convention slot.

According to "Fighting for Life," he got no answer. A letter to Texas Gov. Ann Richards, the convention chair, was similarly ignored.

"For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of total estrangement from my party," wrote Casey, who sprang from a family of congenital Democrats from the hard coal seams of Scranton.

"I wasn't looking to stir up rancor," Casey wrote. "All I wanted was a chance to speak to offer a strong dissent based on the party's historic commitment to protecting the powerless."

Casey recalled bitterly that buttons depicting him as the Pope appeared on the convention floor. "To me, it was simply a case of anti-Catholic bigotry," he wrote.

Gore called afterward to assure Casey that neither he nor Clinton had anything to do with the decision to muzzle him or to feature his political rival.

"But who was behind the refusal to hear my views?" Casey asked. "Gore couldn't give me an answer. The question has gone unanswered to this day."

Bob Casey Jr. said the film to be aired on the final day of the convention would note his father's position on abortion while placing it within the context of his entire public life.

In particular, it is expected to emphasize the late governor's role in expanding health care coverage for Pennsylvania children.

On the campaign trial, Gore has frequently mentioned the state's Children's Health Insurance Program as a model for the health care expansion that he advocates on a national level. In their phone call last week, said Bob Casey Jr., "Gore spoke about his record of public service, and specifically about CHIP."

Casey, a candidate for re-election as auditor general this year and a rumored candidate for governor in 2002, said he welcomed the chance to talk about his father but added that he didn't feel any sense of vindication over it.

"It's a positive development," said Casey, who, like his father, opposes abortion rights. "I don't think you can ever undo what happened [in New York], but in this case you have Vice President Gore making a personal invitation, and I think he recognizes that the convention managers that year didn't do the right thing."

The brief film is being produced by the Gore campaign.

The auditor general will be joined at the convention podium by his brother, Patrick Casey, who is a candidate for Congress against Rep. Don Sherwood, the Republican who barely beat him for the Scranton-based seat in 1998.

"It's an expression on their part that they're reaching out," said Patrick Casey. "They realize there are lots of elected officials who are pro-life Democrats and hopefully they realize that in order to win elections in this country you've got to reach out to that constituency, that we've got to be more open as a party."

The candidate brothers will get about three minutes to introduce the film shortly after 5 p.m. EDT.

In contrast, another native Pennsylvanian, Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, gets a prime-time spot to highlight the party's continuing defense of abortion rights.

Nationally, a recent CNN/Gallup poll found that the vast majority of American voters believe that abortion should be permitted in at least some circumstances, but it also showed that deep divisions over the issue persist.

In the survey, 28 percent said abortion should be permitted in all cases, 49 percent said it should be permitted sometimes, and 19 percent said it should never be legal.

Those numbers would be very different in a poll of the crowd that will face the Caseys on Thursday, with an overwhelming number of delegates favoring unqualified abortion rights.

The elder Casey contended that his treatment at the 1992 convention reflected his party's lack of confidence in its abortion stance. It would be harder to make that case against the planners of this convention.

In addition to the Caseys, they invited Roger Cardinal Mahoney, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, to deliver yesterday's opening invocation, during which he specifically referred to his church's opposition to abortion.

In his autobiography, the late governor described sitting with his wife "in the nosebleed section" of New York City's Madison Square Garden, watching the speech by Taylor, the abortion supporter who had been active in the campaign of his Republican rival: "'Let's remember this moment,'" I said to Ellen. 'One day it's going to come back around.'

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