Former Sen. Arlen Specter, the longest serving senator in Pennsylvania history, died on Sunday from complications of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
The 82-year-old legislator, whose career took him from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party and back to the Democratic Party, was hailed by members of both parties for his long career in public life and his independent streak.
Specter came to the Senate in 1980 and served five terms, establishing a reputation as one of the Republican Party's fiercest independents.
On LGBT issues, Specter drifted further to the center throughout his time on Capitol Hill. Although he originally supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, he disavowed the discriminatory federal law later in his career.
During his final years in Congress, Specter supported a range of pro-LGBT legislative initiatives. Although he did not support marriage equality, he called for the repeal of DOMA. He also co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which remains stalled in Congress, and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act, later passed as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. He also voted for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Indeed, during Specter's final years in Congress his score on the Human Rights Campaign's Congressional Scorecard increased dramatically. Scoring a 67 percent during the 109th Congress, he left office with a 96 percent rating during the 111th Congress.
Specter's moderate streak on LGBT issues and other social issues traditionally supported by Democrats did not come without a cost.
Facing a challenge in Pennsylvania's 2010 Republican primary, Specter announced in April 2009 that the GOP's drift to the right had put him at odds with the Republican philosophy. Specter announced he would leave the Republican Party, which he had been a member of for 44 years, and run for re-election as a Democrat.
Ultimately, Specter was defeated in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost his Senate bid to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Nevertheless, Specter's reputation for voting based on principal rather than party garnered him the respect of many.
As news of Specter's death broke on Sunday, many praised his independence.
In a statement, HRC President Chad Griffin said Specter's support for repealing DADT and passing hate crimes legislation was critical.
"While we disagreed with his support for some conservative judicial nominees which will leave a lasting negative impact on our community, he was willing to work across party lines to get things done," Griffin said.
Specter was at the center of the controversial Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Specter was one of the 52 senators who voted to confirm Thomas.
President Barack Obama, who served with Specter in the Senate, also praised his service.
"Arlen Specter was always a fighter," Obama said in a statement, adding that Specter was "fiercely independent" and never put "party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."
"He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others," Obama said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Vice President Joe Biden, who also served with Specter in the Senate.
"For over three decades, I watched his political courage accomplish great feats and was awed by his physical courage to never give up," Biden said in a statement. "Arlen never walked away from his principles and was at his best when they were challenged."
Obama has ordered flags be flown at half-staff to honor Specter on the day of his funeral.
[Photo: Arlen Specter (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).]