Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives
Term: January 20, 1987 - January 17, 1995
Born: January 9, 1932
Died: May 30, 2000
Robert Patrick Casey was born in Jackson Heights, New York, on January 9, 1932, to Alphonsus (“Al”) L. and Marie Cummings Casey. Governor Casey’s great grandfather, Edward, emigrated from Ireland during the “great hunger” of 1851 and eventually settled in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. Casey grew up in Scranton where his father practiced law. Al Casey had worked in a coal mine as a boy and as a laborer until finishing high school as a non-traditional student. Later he enrolled in and completed a law program at Fordham University in New York for individuals who did not hold a college degree. Returning to his native Scranton the elder Casey quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional lawyer who represented working people and aggrieved mineworkers. He was also active in county Democratic politics.
Influenced by his father, “Spike,” as the younger Casey was widely known, graduated in 1949 from the Scranton Preparatory School where he was elected president of the senior class and head of student council. An avid athlete, Casey played baseball, headed the school’s varsity basketball squad, and was named one of the top five basketball players in Lackawanna County. His athletic talents earned him a professional baseball tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies, although he relinquished the offer in order to attend The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, on an athletic scholarship. There he earned a degree in English, cum laude, in 1953. Following graduation he married Scranton native Ellen Harding. The couple relocated to Washington, D.C., where Casey attended law school at the George Washington University on a trustee scholarship.
Casey received his J.D. in 1956, practiced law in the nation’s capitol, and then returned to Scranton where he won election as a state senator in 1962. With the backing of the state Democratic Party he sought the governorship in 1966 and lost the primary to television cable mogul Milton J. Shapp who, in turn, lost the general election that year to outgoing Governor William W. Scranton’s lieutenant governor Raymond P. Shafer. In 1968, after serving as first vice president of the state constitutional convention, Casey was elected by a 440,000-vote margin as auditor general, the Commonwealth’s taxpayer watchdog. Two years later, at age thirty-eight, Casey sought the governor’s office for a second time with the endorsement of state Democrats. Once again, however, the primary went to Milton Shapp who won the office in November 1970. Casey was reelected auditor general in 1972 by a half-million vote margin in year when Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon carried Pennsylvania by nearly a million votes. Few criticized the work Casey did as auditor general. He was credited with ending corrupt practices that had plagued the office for decades, hiring certified public accountants, investigating fraudulent use of state money, and saving Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars. The reputation for integrity that Casey had earned caused one Philadelphia newspaper to refer to him as “too honest a politician” for the Keystone State.
Constitutionally limited to two terms, Casey left the auditor general’s office in January 1977, returned to private law practice, and sought the governorship for a third time in 1978. The Democratic primary that year went to Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty who lost the general election to Dick Thornburgh. For the next several years Casey practiced law with the Philadelphia-based firm of Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, and Kaufman, managing its Scranton office.
Though it appeared that Thornburgh’s heir was his lieutenant governor and native Lackawanna County resident William W. Scranton III, Casey launched an aggressive campaign in 1986. He secured the primary election by defeating Philadelphia’s district attorney Edward Rendell. Time magazine dubbed the Casey versus Scranton race as a “coal town contest.” In one of the closest gubernatorial elections in Commonwealth history, Casey defeated Scranton in the November general election by a 79,000-vote margin. On January 20, 1987, he became the fifth Democrat in the twentieth century to be sworn into the governor’s office vowing to bring an activist government to Harrisburg. Casey won re-election in 1990 by defeating Auditor General Barbara Hafer by nearly 1.2 million votes—the largest margin that any Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate had yet secured.
During the 1980s and 1990s the Commonwealth continued its economic transition from heavy industry to service and technology. Steel mills closed following the lead of coal mines, apparel and textile factories, and manufacturers of many sorts. Health care, service industries, retailing, and technology gradually supplanted the once prosperous industrial-based Pennsylvania economy. Coupled with a national recession in the early 1990s some communities experienced double-digit unemployment rates while the Commonwealth saw its largest budget deficit in the twentieth century.
Casey professed that government had an obligation to sustain and protect children, families, workers, businesses, and the environment and that doing so would ensure and sustain the growth of economic stability. Among other initiatives, his administration invested $3 billion to create new jobs, reduced business taxes, and implemented numerous programs for children, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and a statewide adoption network. Investments in the Commonwealth’s infrastructure included completion of the 1,600-mile interstate highway system and implementation of the PENNVEST loan and grant program to aid communities in improving public water and sewer systems. Other Casey legacies include the PENNFREE anti-drug and alcohol abuse program, the largest recycling program in the nation, reforms to control the rising cost of auto insurance, workers’ compensation, expansion of health care services for women, reforms to the welfare system, and creation of the heritage park program.
Not one to shun the public eye or controversy, Casey’s “Capital for a Day” program took state government to eighteen communities across the Commonwealth where official business was conducted. He advocated and signed an abortion control statute that included the notification of parents of minor women seeking abortion, a ban on a medical procedure labeled as partial birth abortion, and a twenty-four hour waiting period between requesting and receiving an abortion. On June 29, 1992, a lawsuit, in which Governor Casey was named as a defendant, sought to overturn the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. However, the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, except for a provision requring the notification of a spouse which was struck down. The law earned him scorn in some corners and praise in others. An unwavering right-to-life advocate, Casey refused to endorse politicians or policies that favored a women’s right to choose; a position that provoked anger among many Democrats. In addition, despite the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s approval of Casey’s proposed constitutional amendment to revamp the local taxation system, voters handily rejected the measure at the polls. His administration was also criticized for securing enactment of a large tax increase to balance the state budget in 1991.
At nearly the same time as his 1990 reelection, Casey was diagnosed with Appalachian familial amyloidosis, a genetic condition in which proteins invade and destroy major bodily organs. In June 1993, he underwent a very rare heart-liver transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in an effort to cure the disease. He became one of the few people worldwide to survive for several years following the procedure. Casey left office in January 1995 and considered a run for the presidency in 1996, though his health became a dissuading factor. He was succeeded by Erie Republican Congressman Tom Ridge who ran against Casey’s lieutenant governor Mark Singel. Despite his public popularity, Casey was criticized by many in his own party for refusing to endorse Singel as the two disagreed on the abortion issue. Some blamed Casey for Singel’s loss and the ensuing disarray of the state’s Democratic Party.
The former state senator, auditor general, and governor retired to Scranton where he completed and published an autobiography, Fighting for Life, in 1996. Governor Casey died on May 30, 2000 from the long-term effects of amyloidosis. He was interred in Saint Catherine's Cemetery in the Lackawanna borough of Moscow. In addition to his wife Ellen, he was survived by eight children: Margaret, Mary Ellen, Kathleen, Robert P. Jr., Christopher, Erin, Patrick, and Matthew; twenty-eight grandchildren, and his brother John. In 2006, Robert P. Casey Jr., as his father did, served as Pennsylvania's auditor general, and was elected as United States Senator from Pennsylvania, with the current term expiring in 2013.