Thursday, April 20, 2006

Three men walk into a bar …

A Democrat, a Republican and a Libertarian walk into a bar. No, this isn't a joke. It happened. The three men spent hours discussing ways to fix Pennsylvania's broken government and by the end of the night, all three agreed on almost all of the issues. Imagine that.

The Democrat is Irv Livingood, who is challenging 14-year incumbent Rep. Dante Santoni Jr. in the 126th District. The Republican is Bill Reed, who is taking on 20-year incumbent Rep. Dennis Leh in the 130th District. The former Libertarian is Russ Diamond, founder of PaCleanSweep and independent candidate for governor of Pennsylvania.

The bar is the social quarters of the Alsace Manor Fire Company in Berks County. The occasion was a campaign rally for Livingood, who is the chief mechanic for a township north of Reading and a first-time political candidate. Reed, who owns an auto body shop, has run twice before for Berks County commissioner, but lost both times. Diamond ran for Congress and the state Legislature in 2004 as a Libertarian. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, as was a run for school board in his hometown of Annville, Lebanon County.

Diamond's fortunes changed on July 7, 2005, when the Pennsylvania Legislature voted at 2 a.m. to give its members, the governor and the state's judges pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. That vote would launch Operation Clean Sweep and send incumbents running for their political lives.

The reform movement led by Diamond and a handful of other activists forced the repeal of the pay raise, the defeat of a state Supreme Court justice at the polls last November and a record number of challengers to incumbent legislators for the May 16 primary.

Ten months into his crusade to clean up state government, Diamond has settled on a daunting new challenge. He wants to replace Ed Rendell as governor of Pennsylvania. Diamond's first hurdle — and it's a big one — is to collect a minimum of 67,000 signatures from registered voters just to get his name on the ballot.

Rendell and his GOP challenger, Lynn Swann, needed 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. When the two major parties write the rules, they don't exactly want competition, so people like Diamond or members of minor parties have to spend months scouring for signatures just to get in the game.

Diamond collected a few dozen names at his stop in Berks County and persuaded many of those in attendance to collect more signatures on his behalf.

One of the people who agreed to gather signatures for Diamond was Vicki Rhodier.

"I am a believer of this Russ Diamond," Rhodier said. "I am totally impressed with him. His viewpoints are mine."

Where else would you find a Republican willing to circulate a petition to get an independent candidate on the ballot? That's the beauty of PaCleanSweep, the nonpartisan, grassroots organization that has united Pennsylvanians of all political persuasions.

Another person at the event, William Sakellaropoulos, described himself as a Libertarian who is disgusted with the mess Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg have left. He didn't know much about Diamond, but after hearing him speak and asking several questions, he's found somebody he can support for governor.

"This man makes a lot of sense," Sakellaropoulos said. "This is the kind of leadership we need in this state."

Sakellaropoulos left the meeting with a "Livingood for State Legislature" lawn sign in one hand and a petition for Russ Diamond in the other hand.

A self-admitted "cheapskate," Diamond is trying to win the governor's seat without money, the fuel of all modern political campaigns.

While Ed Rendell sits on a $16 million campaign war chest and Lynn Swann tries to bolster his $1.5 million bank account, Diamond is mounting a grassroots campaign with a Web site,, where supporters can donate money via credit card, and small group of volunteers.

Livingood and Reed also show the disparity between well-financed incumbents and everyday people who are trying to take back their government from special interests.

While someone like Santoni has to pay people to attend his campaign events (free beer anyone?), it's strictly cash bar at the Alsace Manor Fire Company.

Livingood, who broke the bank by spending several hundred dollars from his campaign account to advertise the event, passed around a basket asking for donations from the people in the room. Every dollar counts when you're not handed thousands of dollars by party leaders to win re-election or get the benefit of taxpayer-paid mailings and TV spots from Harrisburg.

Reed won't even ask for money. He said he won't accept a penny from residents in the 130th District. His entire campaign budget, meager as it is, comes from his own pocket.

Livingood and Reed are counting on the anti-incumbent anger in the state and going door-to-door to personally reach voters.

Diamond said he will spend a lot of time over the next four weeks running around the state stumping for PACleanSweep candidates, fulfilling his promise to help them get through the primary. The official "Diamond for Governor Tour" will start after the primary election.

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