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Remembering Fred Anton — the Man Who Saved Pennsylvania Conservatives 

Image: Remembering Fred Anton — the Man Who Saved Pennsylvania Conservatives 

Pennsylvania Society gala in December 2016: Pennsylvania Manufacturers Assn. Chairman Fred Anton (left), Lincoln Institute President Lowman Henry (center) and John Gizzi (right).

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Friday, 03 November 2017 09:51 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Anyone who is an active conservative in Pennsylvania or even involved in the politics of the Keystone State almost certainly knew Fred Anton.

On November 2, Pennsylvanians were shell-shocked by the news that Anton — chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association — was found dead in the Delaware River after a 24-hour disappearance from his Philadelphia home. He was 83 and reportedly suffered from depression.

As if a dam burst, the Pennsylvania press was flooded with tributes from those who knew the bald, bluff plainspoken lawyer. Sen. Pat Toomey, R.-Pa., called him a "mentor of many including myself." Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge hailed Anton for "playing a critical role in helping us to advance our pro-business agenda during my years [as governor]."

"Fred Anton was the godfather of modern Pennsylvania conservatism," Lowman Henry, president of the conservative Lincoln Institute, told Newsmax.

Henry was referring to a particular project in which Anton, a graduate of Villanova University and its law school and a former U.S. Marine, played a big role in 1989. In an effort to repeat the success of the national right-of-center conclave known as CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee), several conservative leaders decided to launch a Pennsylvania version and dubbed it the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference (PLC).

It was not easy. Democrats controlled the statehouse and, in a state where moderate Republicans were the norm, conservatives did not have a lot of talent on the rise. But somehow, the first PLC was launched in Harrisburg. Its first banquet speaker was Rep. Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., — not even in leadership at the time but an up-and-coming leader of the right.

Panels and workshops discussed everything from the threat of eminent domain to dealing with the liberal media. (By way of disclosure, one of the panelists was this reporter.)

The money that made possible this first big leap for the Keystone State conservatives was donated and raised by Fred Anton. Quietly influential as usual, the PMA president made the desperately-needed funding happen and — in his iconic gravelly voice — delivered the welcoming address to more than 200 eager participants at the first PLC.

In 1990, Anton again made PLC happen — this time with more than 300 gathering in Harrisburg.

"And whether you were a pro-life activist, home-schooler or someone who just didn't believe in that stuff and hated big government, you were there and getting along on well with everyone," Anton told me in 2011.

By the late '90s, however, conservatives were discouraged. The Clinton years and the continued control of the state Republican Party by centrist Republicans convinced many that it was not worth it to hold an annual conference. A few years went by in which there were no PLCs.

Fred Anton never gave up, however. In 2004, when conservative Rep. Pat Toomey lost a heart-breakingly close primary to liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (one vote per precinct), a new generation of young Pennsylvania conservatives were energized. Sensing the need to stay energized for their hero Toomey to run again (which he did successfully in 2010), Anton raised the money to revive PLC in '05.

A dozen years later, with the Tea Party movement and the Trump presidential campaign pumping new blood into the Republican Party, PLC became its primary repository. With its annual roster numbering more than 1,000, the conference is a "command performance" for Republicans seeking nomination as governor, senator, or president.

The great irony about Anton was that — as devoted as he was to the conservative cause — friendship trumped all for him. When the conservative Toomey challenged liberal Specter in the '04 primary, Anton stayed with the incumbent.

As he explained to me: "Arlen's my friend and has been since he got elected district attorney of Philly in 1965. We go to Eagles [football] games together. I may not like some votes, but I sure like him." (His friendship would not tolerate Specter's switch to the Democratic Party in 2010; Anton strongly backed Toomey, who eventually won the Senate seat.)

When Frank Rizzo was a controversial figure to many Philadelphia Republicans, Anton worked successfully to switch the former police commissioner and two-term Democratic mayor over to the GOP for a comeback bid for City Hall in 1987.

"And when Frank spotted Fred at a campaign," the late Rizzo confidant James Baumbach told me, "he shouted 'that guy got me here and he's going to write out a five-figure check for us.' Fred nearly fainted!"

Fred Anton won't be in New York this December for the annual Pennsylvania Society gala he helped make happen year after year. And he won't be at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference next May or the PMA board meeting. But his presence will be felt, and his role as a conservative of consequence will long be remembered.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

 

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Anyone who is an active conservative in Pennsylvania or even involved in the politics of the Keystone State almost certainly knew Fred Anton.On November 2, Pennsylvanians were shell-shocked by the news that Anton - chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers...
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Friday, 03 November 2017 09:51 PM
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