Congress

Former Sen. Harris Wofford, who marched with MLK, dies at 92

Pennsylvania Democrat served in administration from John F. Kennedy’s to Bill Clinton’s

Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., right, served alongside Sen. Arlen Specter, left, when Specter was a Republican.   (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Harris Wofford, a former Pennsylvania senator who also served in the administrations of Democratic presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, died Monday night. He was 92.

The Democrat’s life was defined, in many ways, by his commitment to public service. Wofford helped form the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

He was an early supporter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he marched in Selma, Alabama. Wofford’s death came on the same day that the nation recognizes the achievements of the late civil rights leader. 

Wofford was born in New York City in 1926, and served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.  He was a legal assistant for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1954 to 1958, and later the civil rights coordinator for Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.

In the Kennedy administration, he chaired the Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights. He also helped Sargent Shriver launch the Peace Corps, later serving as the group’s associate director. 

In the late 1960s, Wofford left politics to work in academia. He served as president of several institutions, including Bryn Mawr College. He returned to government in the 1980s, serving as Pennsylvania’s secretary of labor and industry. 

In 1991, Gov. Bob Caseyappointed him to fill the Senate vacancy left by the death of Republican Sen. John Heinz, who died in an airplane. (Casey’s son now serves as Pennsylvania’s senior senator.) 

Wofford won a special election that fall for the remainder of Heinz’s term, defeating Republican Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general. He served until 1994, when he lost to Rep. Rick Santorum, then a rising GOP star, who was swept into office during that cycle’s Republican revolution.

Wofford’s unlikely victory over Thornburgh in 1991 was largely credited to Democratic strategists Paul Begala and James Carville’s decision to go for broke and have the candidate push a universal health care plan.

In 1994, Santorum painted Wofford as an out-of-date liberal and assailed him for his support for gun control laws. He won 49 percent to 47 percent.

After leaving the Senate, Wofford became the first CEO of the Corporation for National Service, or AmeriCorps, one of Clinton’s more visible legacies. He served in that capacity from 1995 to 2001.

Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who also marched with King as a young activist, told Roll Call in 2016 that he would forever treasure working with Wofford on enshrining King’s birthday as a national day of service.

“It made King’s birthday a day on, instead of a day off,” Lewis said of the collaboration.

Pennsylvania’s senators lauded Wofford’s life of service. 

Wofford had three children with his wife, Clare Lindgren, who died in 1996.

 

Twenty years later, Wofford wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he would be marrying Matthew Charlton, an interior designer who was 50 years his junior. The pair had met, Wofford wrote, five years after the death of his wife.

 

Wofford was also known to write op-ed articles for the pages of Roll Call. 

 In 2009, he wrote to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation that would reauthorize and expand the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

 

The same year, he also wrote an open letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, offering “some counsel from an elder of the Democratic tribe,” after the Pennsylvania senator defected from the GOP to the Democrats in 2009. 

 

“What counts will be the results — what you are able to do, with your new party and the president, to help move America forward,” Wofford wrote. “Time will tell. As an optimistic friend, I hope the results will be substantial and good for the country.”

 

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