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Barbara Hafer makes it official: She's a Democrat again

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After carrying the Republican banner in five statewide elections, including one as the GOP nominee for governor, state Treasurer Barbara Hafer has returned to the Democratic Party.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
State Treasurer Barbara Hafer joins Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell in front of the City-County Building, Downtown, in September, when she endorsed him over state Attorney General Mike Fisher, his Republican opponent. Hafer was a Republican at the time.
Click photo for larger image.

The Allegheny County Elections Division received the official form Monday certifying Hafer's switch to the party she left when recruited to the Republican Party by Elsie Hillman in 1975. That set the "little nurse from Elizabeth," as she was once derided by former county Commissioner William Hunt, on a path that led to the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners, two terms as state auditor general, a failed run for governor against the late Gov. Robert Casey, and, now, her second term as state treasurer.

Hafer was not ready yesterday to say that the path's next turn would be a bid to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum in 2006, but she made no attempt to dampen that speculation.

"The Senate is a good place to be, and I have a lot of concerns about the budget," Hafer said. "[Gov. Ed] Rendell was the first person to talk to me about that ... but, again, I'm new to the party. I need to talk to a lot of people and discuss it."

Rendell's office issued a statement welcoming the conversion.

"The governor said he understands why a fiscally conservative Republican with moderate social views would feel more comfortable in the Democratic Party than in a Republican Party that has drifted so far to the right," said Chuck Ardo, a Rendell spokesman.

The mutual courtship between Hafer and the Democrats began with her startling decision to endorse Rendell in his 2002 battle for governor against former state Attorney General Mike Fisher, now a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge. Hafer had started out that election cycle as a rival to Fisher for the GOP nomination, but she withdrew from the race after the party's hierarchy lined up behind Fisher.

She compounded her apostasy with a decision last year to endorse then-Controller Dan Onorato in his successful bid to unseat Jim Roddey for Allegheny County chief executive. Hafer also boosted Onorato's effort, and perhaps her own chances of party support in 2006, with a $50,000 campaign contribution. She buttressed her Democratic ties at the other end of the state with a $15,000 contribution to Mayor John Street re-election campaign.

Last month, Hafer also gave $2,000, the maximum under federal law, to the presidential war chest of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Hafer said, however, that she was not planning to formally endorse Kerry in the Democratic race. She said she had contributed and raised money for him in recognition of support she had received over the years from another recent Democratic convert, Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz.

"I am disappointed that Treasurer Hafer would abandon the Republican Party that has endorsed her for statewide office on five different occasions," said Santorum, her potential target. "The fact that we have been supportive of her is proof that the Republican Party is one which is broad-based and welcomes people with different points of view."

Bill Green, a Republican consultant who worked on her first statewide campaign for auditor general in 1988, said Hafer could prove a significant roadblock to a third term for Santorum.

"I think she'll be a pretty strong candidate to tell you the truth," Green said. "I don't know if she could get out of the [Democratic] primary, but if she did, you've got a pro-choice, Western Pennsylvanian, a woman. She'd have some real strengths.

"Barbara's problem has always been her inability to raise money," Green added, noting that was a weakness Rendell, a prolific fund-raiser, would be in a position to help remedy.

Rendell is expected to run for re-election in 2006. A Western Pennsylvania woman would add gender and geographic balance to his ticket.

Democratic Party officials welcomed their new constituent.

"Any time that a Republican standard-bearer such as Ms. Hafer joins you, that's obviously a tremendous statement," said Rep. T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Democratic state committee.

Rooney wasn't ready to embrace Hafer as the party's next Senate candidate yet, but, he said, "There's no question that she's a tremendous candidate. ... She would represent a formidable challenge to Santorum or in any other race."

"This seems to be the fulfillment of where her heart has been the last few years," said Tom Flaherty, the Allegheny County Democratic chairman.

Flaherty said it was too early to speculate on the Senate race, but noted, "She has a track record and has statewide name recognition."

Hafer said that the less-than-surprising decision she formalized this week had been a long time coming.

"During the governor's election, it became obvious to me that I agreed more with Ed Rendell than with Mike [Fisher]. ... I'm a fiscal conservative, but I'm progressive on social issues."

Hafer said one race for which she had been courted as a candidate was that against Rep. Tim Murphy, D-Upper St. Clair, in the new 18th Congressional District.

"But I'm not going to do it," she said.

Hafer said that the partisan change should have no impact on the operations of the treasurer's office for the balance of her term. The state constitution bars her from seeking a third term as treasurer.


James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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