Sen. Specter talks about Pols at Pitt

By Lindsay Carroll

It all started with a Polish joke.

And Thursday night, five months after Sen. Arlen Specter… It all started with a Polish joke.

And Thursday night, five months after Sen. Arlen Specter made remarks at a public luncheon insinuating that Polish people were slow, Pittsburgh’s Polish-American community received a personal apology.

Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania’s history, who ran for president in 1996, offered to hold a town-hall meeting after leaders of local Polish heritage organizations objected to his comments.

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At the town hall in the lower lounge of the William Pitt Union on Thursday night, Specter said that despite his comments, he has ‘great respect for the ethnic composition of America.’

Timothy Kuzma, president of the Polish Falcons of America, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, said that he met personally with the senator when he had heard about the remarks.

‘It’s not an appropriate thing for anyone to do, let alone an elected official,’ said Kuzma.

Kuzma and leaders from the Polish American Congress, the Polish Cultural Council and Pitt’s Office of Governmental Relations organized the event. Specter lectured about the various ways he has supported the Polish community and answered questions for about one hour in front of an audience of 50 community members.

He emphasized that his remark was a ‘misstep.’

‘I made a mistake. I apologized. That’s what happened,’ he said.

For Helen Fronko, a retired Pitt alumna, Specter’s apology did not seem fully sincere.

‘I think he’s a tired, old man,’ she said. ‘[His comments] offend anyone of any sensibilities. So this was a political exercise for Sen. Specter.’

Fronko said she disagreed with Specter because he doesn’t conform to the Republican platform and is pro-choice.

Specter, born in Kansas to immigrant parents, answered questions from the audience about seeking waivers for visas to make it easier for Polish people to come to the United States. He also talked about the Polish nuclear program.

Many in the audience asked questions about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Because Specter voted in favor of the bill, several people asked for explanations and expressed concerns over high taxes and earmarks.

Specter said he voted against a proposed year-long moratorium on earmarks.

‘If the earmarks are properly directed, they ought to be maintained,’ he said. ‘I thought I knew more about Pittsburgh than the bureaucrats in Washington. With Sen. Bob Casey, Specter legislated $95,000 from the federal budget for the new Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, according to Specter’s Web site.

Pitt students Alison Zellis and Jim Price, both political science majors, came to the event because they intern for Specter at his Pittsburgh office.

‘We hardly get to see him, so we decided we should come,’ said Price.

Last year, Specter finished a second round of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin’s disease. He said that at the time, people asked him more about his hairstyle than his policies.

‘Some said I should shave my head to become a sex symbol,’ he said with a laugh.

Specter faces Republican opponent Pat Toomey in the 2010 senatorial election.