Op-Ed: John Heinz’s Legacy — and Pennsylvania’s Political Future

Originally published in RealClearPolitics.

Thirty years ago, Republican Sen. John Heinz – then Pennsylvania’s most popular public figure – died in a midair collision over suburban Philadelphia’s Lower Merion Township. The April 4, 1991, crash that aviation officials deemed a “senseless accident” occurred when a helicopter flew too close to inspect the landing gear of the plane carrying Heinz.

The two aircraft collided over Merion Elementary School, where children were at recess on that beautiful spring afternoon. Seven people were killed: Heinz, age 52, and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot; two pilots in the helicopter; and two first-grade girls playing in the schoolyard. On the ground, crash debris also injured five people, including a second-grade boy who survived burns over 80% of his body.

That day in Los Angeles, a White House aide notified George H.W. Bush, who just hours earlier had attended a memorial service in Washington for Lee Atwater, his legendary 1988 campaign manager. The news was shocking. At the time, Heinz – beloved by Pennsylvania’s working-class and suburban voters alike – was considered a future GOP gubernatorial, or even presidential, contender.

Indeed, Heinz’s tragic death altered both state and national political history. In the 1991 special election to fill Heinz’s seat, Democrat Harris Wofford’s upset victory was an ominous sign for Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, but also for Bush, who in 1992 lost Pennsylvania, which remained in the Democratic fold until Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. In 1994, when Heinz had been expected to run for governor, Tom Ridge and Rick Santorum – who won that year’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns, respectively – foretold the GOP’s Trump-era schism between moderates and populists. And in 1995, Heinz’s widow, Teresa, married John Kerry, whose presidential campaign message in 2004 – a critique of George W. Bush’s foreign policy – resonated in working-class Pennsylvania counties that later fueled Trump’s statewide win. Years before, voters…

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