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Former Gov. Robert P. Casey dies at 68

Two-term governor thrived in adversity

Wednesday, May 31, 2000

By Frank Reeves and Peter J. Shelly

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, a liberal Democrat whose courage in the face of a heart-liver transplant won him the admiration of even his political foes, has died.

Mr. Casey, 68, who served as governor from 1987-1995, died in his sleep at 8:05 p.m. yesterday in Mercy Hospital in Scranton, hospital spokesman Jeff Lewis said.

Lewis said Mr. Casey died of a "serious infection," but that no further details were immediately available.

 
  Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey and his wife Ellen talk following a Jan. 9, 1995 check-up at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

Mr. Casey's death, seven years after undergoing a rare heart and liver transplant, ends a remarkable medical story and political saga that can be best summed up in one word: survival.

In a political career that spanned more than 30 years -- from his election to the state Senate in 1962 until his retirement as governor in 1995 -- Mr. Casey defied the political oddsmakers. Some pundits dismissed him as a political failure after he lost three bids to become Pennsylvania's governor.

On the fourth try, in 1986, he won.

Many doubted he would survive his 1993 heart-liver transplant. Mr. Casey proved them wrong.

Shortly after becoming the state's 42nd governor, Mr. Casey was stricken with a heart attack, the first of several health crises that were to dog him throughout his eight years in office. But each time, Mr. Casey, whose trademark white hair and thick eyebrows made him a favorite of cartoonists, bounced back.

The son of a coal miner, Mr. Casey was an unrepentant New Deal liberal, whose political heroes were Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. When asked to describe the Democratic Party, Mr. Casey would often quote former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The mission of the Democratic Party, Humphrey was fond of saying, is to help "those in the dawn of life, those in the shadow of life, and those in the twilight of life."

Mr. Casey saw his own opposition to abortion, which toward the end of his career put him at odds with many of his party's leaders, as rooted in what he believed was the historic role of the Democratic Party -- to protect the weak, the little guy who didn't always get a fair shake in life. He often compared opposition to abortion to the 19th century abolitionist movement against slavery.

"We can talk on and on about the problems facing children: abusive parents, malnourishment, neglect. But almost always these social ills are just the signs of a deeper malady. I would even say that in our culture today there is a callousness, a meanness, toward the child -- a violent streak slowly spreading out across society," Mr. Casey wrote in his autobiography, "Fighting for Life." "Let me say it directly: Abortion is the ultimate violence. For me it is a simple step in logic: if government has a duty to protect the powerless, then who among us is the most powerless, the most defenseless, the most voiceless? The answer is children."

In 1989, Mr. Casey signed into law the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, after vetoing an earlier version because he thought it was unconstitutional. Some anti-abortion advocates severely criticized the governor, accusing him of selling out his principles. But Mr. Casey was ultimately vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania statute, one of the toughest abortion control laws in the nation.

Mr. Casey had a no-nonsense style. His dogged persistence was interpreted by some as stubbornness, but it was this determination and courage that endeared him to the public as his health grew steadily worse in 1993.

Dramatic recovery

Mr. Casey's dramatic recovery that year from a heart-liver transplant made him an instant folk hero and living medical miracle. In his memoirs, Mr. Casey said he wanted to recover from the risky surgery, in part so he could prove his doubters wrong.

Mr. Casey spent most of his adult life seeking the governorship. Yet ironically, it isn't his accomplishments in that office, so much as his personal triumph over a severe illness, that appears etched in the public's memory.

It was on Monday, June 14, 1993, when the former governor underwent a 13-hour operation to replace his heart and liver at the UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. He was only the sixth person on whom doctors in the United States had attempted such an operation.

Mr. Casey had entered the hospital two days earlier to be examined for a liver transplant. But doctors quickly determined that his heart was so badly damaged by disease that a dual transplant was the only option, despite the risks of putting a 61-year-old man with Mr. Casey's medical history under the strain.

Mr. Casey faced steep odds of even surviving the operation. He had been suffering from a rare, hereditary disease called familial amyloidosis, which had damaged his heart by thickening the heart wall with excess deposits of protein. Doctors hoped that by replacing the liver -- the source of the excess amyloid protein that had accumulated in his heart -- they would cure Mr. Casey of his disease and prevent future heart damage. But to keep Mr. Casey alive, they needed to replace his heart, which was on the verge of failure.

So grave was the situation that the day before the surgery, he was anointed by Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"I was too old, too sick, went one view. My double transplant was incredibly risky for many reasons," Mr. Casey recalled in his autobiography. "Surgery on the governor of a state in this situation might look like favoritism. ... Surgery on me, bluntly, would probably be a waste of two precious organs. But [Dr. Thomas] Starzl wouldn't hear it. He believed new techniques and new drugs would make the difference. 'Besides,' he told the doubters, 'the governor's a fighter.' "

Starzl, a pioneer in organ transplants, was right. The doubters were wrong. And six months later, in December 1993, a beaming Bob Casey resumed the powers of his office, which he had relinquished to then Lt. Gov. Mark Singel. Upon taking up the reins again, Mr. Casey delivered a speech that reduced to tears the hardened politicians who were packed into the ornate reception room outside the governor's Capitol office to welcome him back.

Mr. Casey told the crowd that day: "A lot of people are hurting today, and we've got to help them."

In March 1999, after being flown from a Scranton hospital to Presby, Mr. Casey lay close to death, a series of infections racking his body. Mr. Casey told family members during one perilous moment that he still "had things to do."

He was released to a rehabilitation facility in Scranton, where he remained until Sept. 14, 1999, when he was admitted to Mercy Hospital in that city.

Political setbacks

For better than three decades, Mr. Casey had had "things to do": He was elected to the state Senate in 1962, when he was 30 years old. In 1966, he made his first unsuccessful bid for governor.

In 1968, Mr. Casey was elected state auditor general, the state's fiscal watchdog. Two years later, he made a second bid for governor. But, again, he failed.

He was re-elected auditor general in 1972. A year after his term ended in 1977, Mr. Casey tried once again to win the governor's mansion. He lost.

That defeat in 1978 was particularly galling because another candidate with his name -- another Bob Casey -- won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. In later campaigns, Casey would remind voters that he was "the real Bob Casey," lest there be any doubt.

Mr. Casey returned to Scranton, where he practiced law. It appeared to more than one political observer that Mr. Casey's political career, which seemed to have no limits when he was first elected to the state Senate, was over.

But in 1986 -- 20 years after his first try -- Mr. Casey was elected governor, defeating Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, the Republican nominee and scion of one of Pennsylvania's most prominent families.

The election was not only a personal triumph for Mr. Casey, it also catapulted a relatively unknown political consultant, James Carville, into national prominence. Carville would later mastermind Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign.

In 1986, it was Carville and his team that came up with the so-called "guru ad," which the Casey campaign used with devastating effect against Scranton. The television spot played on Scranton's involvement with Transcendental Meditation. The ad featured a news article in which Scranton was quoted as praising TM, along with a picture of a TM disciple with long, scruffy hair. Sitar music was playing in the background.

Mr. Casey was criticized for resorting to these hard-ball tactics, of playing on the fears and ignorance of many voters. The campaign also reinforced Carville's reputation as a tough, slash-and-burn Democratic Party operative.

In the 1986 campaign, some dubbed Mr. Casey "the three-time loss from Holy Cross," a play on his track record and his alma mater.

Mr. Casey actually enjoyed the new moniker. In his 1996 memoirs, "Fighting for Life," Mr. Casey wrote: "[T]here's still something I like in the name. It captures something about my life and my whole idea of America itself."

As governor, Mr. Casey would constantly remind staffers that they should think of "the guy from Monessen" when deciding policy issues, reminding them that towns like Monessen -- hard hit by the decline in the steel and coal industries -- dotted the state.

On his first day in office in January 1987, Mr. Casey traveled to the hard-scrabble community to start his economic development programs that he hoped would revive Monessen and other mill towns reeling from the collapse of the steel industry.

Ironically, several years later, it would be Michael Lucas, a "guy from Monessen," whose heart and liver were donated to Mr. Casey. Lucas, 34, had been beaten to death outside his home.

During his first term, Mr. Casey expanded health care for the children of working families who earned too much to qualify for welfare but were too poor to afford health insurance. The Children Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, became a national model, copied by numerous other states and even embraced by Republican lawmakers who first opposed it.

He launched Pennvest, which was designed to bring clean water and sewage treatment facilities to rural parts of the state by making grants and loans available to small towns and authorities. More than $1.5 billion has been spent through the program, and the projects it funded now serve more than half the state's population.

Under Mr. Casey's watch, Pennsylvania became the largest state in the country to mandate recycling. With the governor's support, the Legislature passed measures to establish a superfund clean-up program to reclaim some of the state's most environmentally hazardous sites.

In 1990, at the end of his first term, he pushed through an auto insurance reform law designed to control rates and curb litigation.

Mr. Casey was hit with some tough political losses as well. His unsuccessful attempt to push through local property tax reform in 1987 was "politically, perhaps my biggest failure," Mr. Casey later said.

The voters that year overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment and enabling legislation that the Casey administration had hoped would lead to a reduction in local property taxes. The referendum was rejected by an 80-20 percent margin.

"The defeat was stunning. My standing in the polls plummeted. The political vultures began to circle," Mr. Casey recalled in his memoirs.

By 1990, with the election approaching, Pennsylvania was already in the grips of a deepening economic recession. Unemployment was rising; tax revenues were less than the administration had expected. Neighboring states were already firing government workers, cutting back programs and raising taxes to cover budget deficits. It seemed like just a matter of time before Pennsylvania would be hit.

But Mr. Casey, in the midst of a re-election campaign, talked little about the worsening economic crisis. He denounced his Republican challenger -- Barbara Hafer, then the state's auditor general and now state treasurer, for her doom-and-gloom predictions. Hafer warned that the state government faced a $1 billion deficit. She accused Mr. Casey and his advisers of trying to cover up the bad economic news.

Hafer had little backing from her own party. GOP leaders seemed resigned that Mr. Casey, still a popular incumbent, was likely to win re-election.

Hafer seemed raw and untried and prone to shoot from the hip. Her description of Mr. Casey as "a red-necked Irishman" seemed to confirm the lingering doubts many had about her ability to serve as governor.

Re-elected by huge margin

In November 1990, Mr. Casey was reelected to a second term by the largest margin of any candidate, winning by more than 1 million votes. Mr. Casey carried 66 of the state's 67 counties.

But a few months later, Hafer was vindicated.

In 1991, at the start of his second term, Mr. Casey pushed through a $3 billion tax hike to help balance the state budget in the teeth of a recession. It was a hugely unpopular move that Mr. Casey's critics still decry.

The tax increases would give Republicans an issue they have turned to their advantage in every successive election -- blasting the Democrats as "tax-and-spend liberals." But Mr. Casey would counter-punch the critics and point out that no lawmaker lost his or her job as a result of voting for that budget increase. As the recession deepened in 1991, Mr. Casey laid off 2,000 workers and closed six state hospitals.

In 1993, Mr. Casey made a push for sweeping health care reform in the state, in the face of rising health-care costs and an increase in the number of Pennsylvanians without medical insurance.

It was at a time when the Clinton administration was taking up the same challenge. But like the president's initiatives, the Casey plan went nowhere.

Under Mr. Casey, the state began building more prisons and devoting an increasing amout of the state's budget for corrections, a trend that has continued under Gov. Ridge.

The Casey years also saw a steep rise in Medicaid expenditures and the first steps to curb the welfare and medical assistance budgets. These cost-saving measures were widely criticized by welfare rights advocates who claimed the Casey administration was trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

Business groups criticized the Casey administration's tough environmental protection policies and the increase in business taxes during the Casey years. They contended that high taxes and an unfriendly regulatory climate made Pennsylvania less attractive to investors and put the state at a disadvantage as it sought to draw business here.

Mr. Casey's eight-year tenure was largely scandal-free, in marked contrast to the state's previous Democratic governor, Milton Shapp. The scandals of the Shapp administration had been a springboard for Dick Thornburgh, a Republican federal prosecutor from Pittsburgh who was elected governor on a promise to clean up the corruption in Harrisburg.

For his part, Mr. Casey instituted tough disclosure standards for top administration officials.

While in office, Mr. Casey often clashed more fiercely with members of his own party than he did with Republicans. In 1992, Mr. Casey was snubbed by the national Democratic Party officials when he was barred from speaking during prime time at the party's national convention in New York, in which Bill Clinton was nominated for president.

In the 1994 Pennsylvania governor's race, Mr. Casey refused to endorse then Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, the Democratic candidate, because he felt Singel had begun to waiver on his "pro-life" commitment. It was an allegation Singel denied.

That same year, Mr. Casey declined to endorse then incumbent U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa, also because of the abortion issue. Indeed, it was Mr. Casey who appointed Wofford to fill the unexpired term of Sen. John Heinz after Heinz was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991.

In 1994, Wofford narrowly lost the election to U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. Many Democrats seethed at Mr. Casey's decision to "take a walk" on the party.

In January 1995, Mr. Casey turned over the reins of power to Republican Tom Ridge, a congressman from Erie who had been elected governor the previous November. Mr. Casey returned to Scranton, to the rambling house on Washington Street where he and his wife Ellen had raised eight children.

He kept his hand in politics, helping to found the Campaign for the American Family. He lobbied the U.S. Congress on a host of issues, from adoption to human rights through the Campaign for the American Family. Some anti-abortion Democrats wanted Mr. Casey to run for the presidency, to reclaim, as they saw it, the soul of the Democratic Party.

The Casey name is still powerful in Pennsylvania politics, though not impregnable. In 1996, Robert P. Casey Jr. was elected state auditor general, a post his father once held. The younger Casey won in a year when Republicans swept all the statewide races, making him currently the highest elected Democratic official in the state.

In the fall of 1998, former governor Casey's son Patrick unsuccessfuly ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, losing to U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., in a close fight.

Father his only hero growing up

Mr. Casey was born in Jackson Heights, N.Y., on Jan. 9, 1932, the son of Alphonsus and Marie Casey.

His father, who had started work in the hard-coal mines around Scranton at age 11 and who had no college education, had just put himself through Fordham Law School. At age 40, Alphonsus Casey passed the bar, married, started a family and began practicing in New York, but the family moved soon back to Scranton.

Al Casey died in 1954, when his older son was just 22. But he left an indelible mark. Years afterward, Mr. Casey kept a portrait of his father behind his desk and often talked of him in campaign stump speeches.

In his memoirs, Mr. Casey said: "My father was the only hero I ever had growing up."

In 1949, he graduated from Jesuit-run Scranton Preparatory School, where he was class valedictorian, captain of the baseball and basketball teams, and senior class president.

He won a scholarship to the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he played basketball on a team with Bob Cousy, the legendary Boston Celtics guard.

Three years later, Mr. Casey earned his law degree from the George Washington University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Casey is survived by his wife, the former Ellen Theresa Harding, his high-school sweetheart whom he met when he was 14 in Scranton. He is also survived by the couple's eight grown children and his grandchildren.


Frank Reeves is a Post-Gazette staff writer. Peter J. Shelly works for capitolwire.com.



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