Rick Santorum: “I Was Basically Pro-Choice All My Life, Until I Ran for Congress”

In a 1995 Philadelphia magazine feature, the 2012 presidential candidate was depicted as a Newt Gingrich acolyte, a Congressional bully, a class clown … and someone who changed his mind about abortion because of “science and religion.”

SANOTRUM LIKES TO CLAIM A LIFE LIVED free of calculation because this supports his Reaganesque, bootstraps philosophy that success in America is a low-hanging fruit. But it also allows him—clumsily, perhaps—to try to affect the sort of aristocratic ease of a real hero-politician like Bill Bradley, who as a college basketball player had spoken of possessing “a sense of where you are,” the uncanny ability to find the basket without looking up. But Bradley was a super-achiever and a leader, an NBA all-star and a Rhodes Scholar. Santorum keeps copies of National Review and PC Gamer, a video-games magazine, in a hutch near his desk.

By 1979, the start of his senior year, Santorum was encouraged by the faction that had control of the College Republican machine—a group that included his friend Mark Phenicie and Phil English, now a U.S. congressman from Erie—to run for statewide president. He won, but did not have a distinguished tenure. Presiding over the organization’s elections, for instance, Santorum abandoned his support of a female friend from Penn State to allow a group of kids to nominate another candidate from the floor (in violation of College Republican rules); he also let a crony who wasn’t even enrolled full time in classes run for president (a second violation of the rules). “What Rick did during the convention that year soured a lot of people on politics,” says a College Republican officer who was present. At a meeting at Indiana University of Pennsylvania that year, Santorum led a fellow officer into the student union and began to ask him leading questions about what he thought of other members of the group. He had his hands stuffed into his pockets. When the fellow asked Santorum to take his hands out of his pants, he saw he was holding a small tape recorder, which was turned on. “I have a bad memory, and it’s hard to remember everything I talk about,” was Santorum’s excuse. Today, Santorum says he doesn’t remember the incident.

After college, Santorum enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh for business school. “I applied to Syracuse and Pitt,” he says, “and I hate to tell you this, but I went to Pitt because Syracuse was a two-year program and Pitt was 11 months.” He made it through and moved to Harrisburg to work for state Senator Corman, a Republican he’d interned for in college. Corman is a moderate Republican representing the area around State College. Both he and his wife, Becky, are staunch advocates of abortion rights. Santorum worked in Corman’s office for five years, serving much of that time as his administrative assistant. Corman credits Santorum’s rise in politics to his memory: “He has an incredible recall that serves him so well with all these complex issues.”

Back then, Santorum was known—like Corman—for being nonpartisan. “Rick never wore his politics on his sleeve,” says J. Barry Stout, the ranking Democrat on the Senate transportation committee. “He was a Democrat when he had to be and a Republican when he had to be. He was a good worker, but nothing special.” Republican consultant William Green, who befriended Santorum in Harrisburg, believes Santorum was politically ambivalent: “Was he impassioned? I don’t think I’d have used that word. The zealotry came about later. When he ran for Congress.”

While he was working in Harrisburg, Santorum bought a house by taking advantage of an unpublished, low-interest state loan program. This is especially interesting for a politician who advocates abolishing government programs, including many student loans. Santorum says that he sees no incongruity in this.

One of Santorum’s tenants in the house was Corman, who was nearly 50 at the time and says he began to treat Santorum “as an extra son.” In the spring of 1983, Corman decided to go to law school. “He came up with the idea,” Santorum says, “and he said to me, ‘You’re gonna go to law school too.’ I’d never really wanted to do it. Three years, it was hard. Didn’t think I wanted to go through with that. But I ended up going down with him to Dickinson, which was nearby, to meet with the dean.” After Corman changed his mind, Santorum wanted to back out too. But, he says, he figured “I’d already paid my 30 bucks to take the [LSAT], I’ll take the test.”

Again, Santorum applied late. He got in and decided to go, remaining a full-time employee on Corman’s payroll even though his class schedule took up most of his day. And he did well at Dickinson. “I have the impression his views have grown considerably more conservative since law school,” says Harvey Feldman, Dickinson’s associate dean for academic affairs, who describes himself as “the closest thing to a mentor” Santorum had at law school. “He never struck me as much of a conservative. As I remember, it was process that interested him most, not ideology.”

Wearing a suit and tie to class every day, Santorum stood out at Dickinson. He had begun to carry himself differently in Harrisburg, too. “He had a game plan,” says Stout. “That was the story. He was going to keep moving, move somewhere else in the state and run for office. There was a bit of a feeling ‘Who does this guy think he is?’” In 1986, when he finished law school, Santorum sent résumés to a couple of firms in Pittsburgh, listing poetry as a hobby. He accepted a job at Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, a white-shoe firm with longstanding ties to state Republican politics. Governor Dick Thornburgh, in fact, had been a partner there, as had Thomas Pomeroy, a former associate justice on the state Supreme Court. One of its more prominent attorneys today is Harry “Woody” Turner, a GOP fund-raiser and a former candidate for Congress. Santorum told friends in Harrisburg he’d be back.

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