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.”

A HANDFUL OF SANTORUM’S AIDES have gathered chairs around his desk for their morning meeting. Attendant are his chief of staff, his press secretary, a legislative assistant and one or two others. They are discussing the current status of Santorum’s drive to have Hans Sewering, a Nazi doctor, investigated and tried for alleged war crimes. The monitor of Santorum’s computer shows a high-resolution shot of a golf course—a beautiful hole on a cliff overlooking the water, dogleg left. He leans over and pulls up his socks. “We tried to get 60 Minutes to investigate it,” the press secretary is saying, “but the German government won’t let them in.” He hands Santorum a letter saying as much from Thomas Matussek, the deputy chief of mission for the German embassy.

Santorum examines the letter. “You see how he’s signing his name now?” he says, suddenly animated.

“Thing is, Rick,” the press secretary says, “60 Minutes ran into a brick wall last week.”

“It’s just ‘Matussek,’” Santorum says. “He doesn’t even sign his own first name.”

The image on Santorum’s computer changes. This hole has a long fairway. The sun is setting behind it, the sky is pink.

“60 Minutes can’t get Sewering, they can’t get records,” says the press secretary.

“This doesn’t even look like ‘Matussek,’” Santorum says. He holds the letter up. “It looks like ‘Pall.’ P-A-L-L.”

“In any case,” says the press secretary, “they can’t get an interview.”

The screen changes again. Three bunkers around a putting green. Santorum stares at it.

“Rick?” the chief of staff says.

“What, now?” Santorum says. He snaps out of his links-man’s reverie. “Sorry.”

WHEN SANTORUM BEGAN WORK AT Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, he bought a house in suburban Mount Lebanon, an unusual location for a single associate. The area’s representative in Congress was Doug Walgren, an ineffectual, if beneficent, Democrat who had been in office since 1976. The enclaves of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, where most young professionals in Pittsburgh choose to live, were within the boundaries of another district, one represented by William Coyne, a Democrat who was far more popular and far less vulnerable to a newcomer like Santorum.

Santorum was a competent lawyer by some accounts, less so by others. “Rick was very persuasive, very good,” says a friend and fellow associate, “but after a couple of years, it was clear to him and to everyone else at K&L that he didn’t have a chance of making partner. He worked 40-hour weeks, which just didn’t cut it at a place like that, where your worth is determined by the number of hours you bill. He was always leaving work early to golf. One time he took off most of a Friday to drive to see Penn State play at Notre Dame.” The firm had Santorum doing corporate law and litigation, and using his Harrisburg contacts to lobby a few low-priority cases. In the best-known of these, a case somewhat beneath Kirkpatrick’s station, Santorum was enlisted to represent the World Wrestling Federation, arguing that pro wrestling is not a sport and therefore needn’t be regulated against steroid use. Occasionally, Santorum paced the firm’s library, randomly asking fellow associates what they thought about abortion.

By the fall of 1988, Santorum’s former colleagues in Harrisburg were awaiting his return. A seat in the state House of Representatives was open, and they encouraged him to run. Santorum told them he would indeed seek office, but that he was headed to Washington. He said he had it all mapped out. On Tuesday, November 6th, as the Republican challenger John Maxwell went down in flames to U.S. Congressman Doug Walgren, Santorum stood outside the polls at Markham Elementary School and told exiting voters he’d be running against Walgren. In two years.

Kirkpatrick and Lockhart’s partners were not surprised when they learned of Santorum’s plans, but they didn’t think he could win. Charles Queenan, Kirkpatrick’s managing partner and another of its well-connected Republicans, told Santorum if he wanted to run, he’d have to leave the firm. Santorum never hesitated. “Do you know how to help me raise money?” he asked.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Santorum. While the firm’s connections did serve him well, especially since the Republican National Committee gave no assistance, his real boost came quietly from the foot soldiers of the Christian right. This was a resource still untapped by most national-level politicians in Pennsylvania. “The Republican Party has no organization in the western part of the state,” says H. William DeWeese, minority leader of the state House. “Santorum had to mobilize someone.” And so he sent thousands of mailers to evangelicals. “Having returned to my church after a period of absence,” he wrote in one, “I now understand the connection between a personal, vibrant faith commitment and the moral fiber of our nation’s needs. While I will represent all the people of my district, I will do so in a principled fashion, derived from my religious commitment.” Anti-abortion ministers in area churches began praying for a Santorum victory, and a local newspaper estimated that more than half of Santorum’s 2,000 volunteers were evangelicals. A campaign aide was quoted, agreeing, “We are an army that meets on Sundays.”

What made the campaign such a sticky wicket for Santorum was that the 18th District, a stronghold of Big Steel, was overwhelmingly moderate. More than half of its voters were registered Democrats, and many of its Republicans were pro-choice. So Santorum was careful about what he said to whom. “Believe it or not, he kept his views on abortion very quiet throughout the campaign,” says a prominent Republican active in Planned Parenthood. “At least he did with us. No one here had identified him as anti-choice.” Santorum knocked on 25,000 doors and some days stood, campaign sign in hand, at major interstate exits during rush hour. He crashed Walgren’s fund-raisers and attacked him as a Washington insider who barely visited his home district, voting for Congressional pay raises and owning a house near Washington.

In seizing upon this theme, too, Santorum was ahead of the curve. One ad showed a photo of Walgren’s house outside Washington, shot from an angle that made it appear larger than it actually was. (This September, Santorum put his Pittsburgh residence on the market and bought a house in suburban Virginia.) And while Santorum called the need for Congressional term limits reason enough to challenge Walgren, to this day he has not announced his own term limit. Even worse, Santorum’s campaign mailed out a flyer dummied-up to look like a tear sheet from the Washington Post, making unsubstantiated charges that Walgren’s wife held a job that presented a conflict of interest for Walgren. “I have never in my life seen a politician so dishonest,” Walgren says today. “Typically in a campaign debate, when you confront your opponent for saying something misleading, he will back down and try to spin the issue. But Santorum would look right at me and just repeat charges he knew to be wrong.”

During this time, Santorum also found himself a wife. In 1988, he had met Karen Garver, a law student considering an offer for a summer associate’s job at Kirkpatrick, and they’d connected right away. Like Santorum, Karen was Catholic and from Pittsburgh. At the time, she was living with Tom Allen, a well-known OB-GYN who in 1972 had co-founded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic. He also happened to be the doctor who had delivered Karen and some of her siblings. She had moved in with Allen when she was a nursing student in her early 20s and he was in his 60s. Upon leaving Allen for Santorum, she told him one of her considerations was starting a family. “When Karen told me she was moving out,” Allen says, “she said, ‘You’d really like Rick. He’s a lot like you. He’s politically active and he’s pro-choice.’”

Santorum and Karen were married in June 1990, as the campaign escalated. The ceremony took place at Heinz Chapel, a nondenominational place of worship at the University of Pittsburgh. “Today,” the priest said in his benediction, “we pray for good luck, fertility and enough votes to win on election day.”

Now, the Santorums have three children, and Karen works part-time doing legal work for Brabender Cox, the political-consulting firm Santorum has used for all his campaigns. (He also put Karen’s sister on his Congressional staff during his first term.)

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