Philanthropist, GOP powerbroker Elsie Hillman dies at 89

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Posted: Aug 04, 2015 4:30 PM
Philanthropist, GOP powerbroker Elsie Hillman dies at 89

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Elsie Hillman, a philanthropist and political activist who helped propel moderate Republicans to state and national offices, died Tuesday. She was 89.

Her death was confirmed by her husband of 70 years, billionaire industrialist Henry Hillman, and their four children.

Elsie Hillman is a former Republican National Committeewoman who used her political acumen and money to help President George H.W. Bush get elected in 1988 and congressman Tom Ridge get elected governor in 1994.

Hillman was also known to have advised or supported former Republican Govs. William Scranton and Dick Thornburgh, former U.S. Sens. John Heinz and Arlen Specter, and former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

"The death of Elsie Hillman marks the end of an era in American politics and our nation is the poorer for this loss," Thornburgh said in a statement. "Elsie was a true patriot, devoted to the principles that made our political system work for all of our citizens."

Her friendship with Bush began in the 1940s, when he was an oil entrepreneur with her brother, Toby Hilliard.

In the 1980 campaign, she helped Bush win the GOP primary in Pennsylvania before Ronald Reagan eventually won the party's nomination and then the presidency with Bush as his running mate.

In a statement Tuesday, Bush called her "one of the brightest points of light and finest political activists" in the country.

"She seemed to know everyone," Bush said. "And she had respect and admiration even from those with whom she did not always agree on issues."

Hillman was known for her moderate views and support of abortion rights, as well as for her unpretentious clothing and habit of always being late.

When she retired after 20 years as a GOP national committeewoman in 1996, Pennsylvania state Sen. Robert Jubelirer hailed her as "the heart and soul of the Pennsylvania Republican Party."

Her support of moderates was credited with helping Republicans win statewide office despite a Democratic registration edge in the state.

Before helping Ridge win as governor, she supported Heinz, who was elected to the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1976 and was considered a presidential hopeful before he died in a plane crash in 1991.

Over the years, her views put her at odds with more conservative Republicans.

In 2009, she publicly lamented her friend Specter's switch to the Democratic Party but said it should come as no surprise — and she planned to vote for him in 2010.

"While I am a Republican and will most likely be one for the rest of my life, I have seen our party move further to the right, leaving little room for those of us in the middle," she said in a statement. "In so doing the Republican Party runs the risk of becoming a minority party."

Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that Hillman "was an icon of Republican politics in Pennsylvania."

Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett said, "Elsie was a mentor to me and was someone I sought counsel and advice from throughout my career."

Hillman chaired the Elsie G. Hillman Foundation, was a trustee of the Hillman Family Foundations and supported a wide variety of causes, including Pittsburgh's public television station and its symphony orchestra, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The university's Institute of Politics recently chronicled her life in a publication titled "Never a Spectator: The Political Life of Elsie Hillman," focusing on her groundbreaking civic work and advocacy for women and minorities in politics.

Hillman is survived by her husband; children Lea Simonds, Audrey Fisher, Henry Hillman Jr. and Bill Hillman; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be private, though a community memorial is planned for Sept. 19 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh.