Remembering Bob Edgar, Pennsylvania liberal hero
HARRISBURG -- Bob Edgar, the great hero of Pennsylvania liberals between U.S. Sen. Joe Clark in the 1950s and 1960s and Gov. Ed Rendell in the 1990s and 2000s, died Tuesday, a day after he had run a staff meeting at Common Cause, the non-profit he led.
He was 69 and died in his Virginia home after collapsing while running on a treadmill, according to his wife of 48 years, Merle Edgar.
Edgar was the John the Baptist of Democratic suburban politicians, the first sign that Democrats could win as big a race as Congress in the Philadelphia suburbs. He shocked the political world by defeating the famous Delaware County GOP War Board in 1974.
Back then, a Drexel University chaplain driving around in a Volkswagen Bug, he was like the Barack Obama of Delaware County Democratic politics. He also may have been the inspiration for Obama's famous line: "We are the change we have been waiting for." Friends remembered for decades that in every speech he would say: "We are the leaders we have been waiting for."
Combining inspiration with lots of sweat equity, Edgar put together a vast liberal coalition that believed in Edgar, and worked like no set of suburban Democrats ever had before.
He beat a candidate known then and now for his gentlemanly conduct of hard-core GOP politics, then-Delaware County District Attorney Stephen McEwen.
But beating the favorite son of the GOP establishment was not uncommon around the country, of course, in the post-Watergate elections of 1974, although Edgar was the only Pennsylvania Democrat to win a GOP seat that year.
And unlike most Watergate babies who won in strong GOP districts, then lost shortly thereafter, Edgar won another narrow election in 1976 -- and four more after that, until he ran for U.S. Senate in 1986. And he did it in a district that as soon as he left, elected a classic Delco Republican, Curt Weldon, and kept him there until a scandal hit.
Weldon lost narrowly to Edgar in 1984, helping Edgar decide to run for Senate, since a series of tightrope elections loomed in Delaware County.
But while the GOP reclaimed the district, after Edgar, the GOP had to keep changing the district as it steadily became more liberal. In 2011, they had to run it out to Lancaster and Chester counties to keep a Republican there.
During those six terms, Edgar "never cast an unprincipled vote in his life, he did what he thought was right," said former U.S. Rep. Bob Borski, D-Philadelphia, who served with him for the last four years of his congressional career.
Wikipedia reports that Edgar won higher funding for mass transit, and wrote the community Right to Know provisions of Super Fund legislation, and co-authored the new G.I. Bill for the all-volunteer service. He also, despite his liberal reputation, distinguished himself as one of the solid members of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, from 1976 through 1978, that investigated the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. That committee was half solid folks, half people letting their crazy out, and Edgar never joined the crazies, skeptical as he was of official accounts of both assassinations.
Edgar, like Borski, looked and talked like a congressman -- handsome and forthright, particularly memorable for the strongest chin in politics -- and for many years veterans groups and others would say, as one frustrated Republican said of vet voters' views: "He dressed like a square so he can't be one of those hippies."
Borski said of Edgar: "He was a sincere, solid, good person, with a fun, odd sense of humor. I held him in really high regard."
In 1986, Edgar ran for Senate, incensed by what he believed to be the fence-sitting of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican. Why did he leave Congress? Because after six near losses, he understood it was time to go up or get out, and that losing his congressional seat would make it harder to run and win statewide.
And since the ticket had Bob Casey Sr. -- who finally won the governorship in 1986 -- on it, Edgar thought he had a realistic chance to win.
The Edgar inner circle thought Casey was too conservative and would trail Edgar for that reason. But it was the other way around: by casting himself as the social conservative for governor, Casey won while Edgar had a good but clear loss.
But Edgar remained the star of the southeastern Pennsylvania and eventually the Washington, D.C., liberal crowd. Because he was for disclosing what government did, when they did it, for 40 years.
Which is why the man who became famous for beating the toughest Republicans in the Philly suburbs led a theological college and then a council of churches before landing at Common Cause in 2007.
He was the same guy at Common Cause as he was in Congress and in every other job he ever held. And unlike guys elected for longer and for bigger offices, remains a hero for many liberals, and admired by many more who knew him.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a long-time liberal leader in southeastern Pennsylvania, wrote of him: "I last saw him on January 15, when he spoke at a gathering at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House, sponsored by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, to protest Presidential inaction on the climate crisis.
"He recalled the moment when as a seminary student he sat young and awe-struck in the balcony of that church, and heard Dr, Martin Luther King preach the need for a movement of the Spirit to heal America.
"From that moment on, Bob dedicated his religious life to the public good. ... And for me, Bob was the person who could call me on a hot day two summers ago and ask if I would join the very next day with him and other religious leaders to pray -- and risk arrest -- in the US Capitol Rotunda, praying for the Congress to create a Federal budget that would meet the needs of the poor and of the Earth. Because it was Bob, I broke other appointments and said Yes. And then ten of us were indeed arrested. For God's sake, joyfully. For America's sake, sadly -- for we knew the Congress would not listen to the God we prayed to.
"... In our generation no one that I have known has matched the passion and compassion, the generosity and commitment, that he drew from God to work for the common good."