Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The job isn't done yet

If you were flipping through the channels last week and caught my TV debut on the Pennsylvania Cable Network's "Journalists Roundtable" program, some of these observations may sound familiar.

The topic of the show was the fallout from the historic May 16 Primary Election in which Pennsylvania voters ousted at least 17 incumbent legislators (it could be more with a handful of races still too close to call).

All of the legislators had one thing in common: They voted for the July 7 pay raise for themselves, the governor and state judges. That infamous vote, taken at 2 a.m. without any public debate, lit the fuse of the current voter revolt in the Keystone State.

Here are some highlights from what I said on the show (or wish I had said at the time of the taping.)

Berks County voters did their job on May 16. They kicked out four of the five incumbents who had primary challengers. The only one who survived was Democrat Dante Santoni, but just barely. Two challengers split the anti-incumbent vote, allowing Santoni to secure the nomination, but 55 percent of the Democratic voters in the 126th House District rejected the veteran lawmaker, who is vulnerable in November.

Political pundits — including many who've appeared on PCN — have been saying the anti-incumbent movement is limited to the central and western Pennsylvania. That's not the case. Berks voters were very angry. And I had a lot of people in Chester and Montgomery counties tell me they were disappointed they didn’t get an opportunity to vote against an incumbent.

Most of the pay-jackers from Chester and Montgomery counties retired rather than face the voters or they were not facing opposition in the primary. Many will face challengers in November. There will be more political bloodletting this fall.

The defeat of Sen. Chip Brightbill and Sen. Bob Jubelirer, powerful Republicans who collectively spent $2.5 million to defend their seats against little-known and under-funded challengers, doesn't bode well for Ed Rendell.

The pay raise was a three-headed monster. All three branches of state government conspired to pass off the pay raise on taxpayers. The voters punished the judiciary last November by kicking Russell Nigro off the Supreme Court. They punished the GOP leadership in the Legislature on May 16. Rendell is next. He signed the pay raise into law. He defended it. He was in on the back-room dealings that crafted the pay raise. Payback is coming for Rendell.

Republicans took care of business on Tuesday. Brightbill and Jubilirer made too many deals with Rendell. They were too cozy with Pennsylvania's liberal, tax-and-spend governor. The voters — mainly the conservatives in their respective districts — gave Brightbill and Jubilirer a swift kick in the pants. Democrats had the same opportunity to punish their leadership — Bill DeWeese and Mike Veon — and didn't do it.

That's an important distinction between the two parties. If you have an infestation problem, you call an exterminator. Republicans took care of their problem. Democrats are more willing to live with their flawed leadership. I commend Republicans, especially conservative bloggers and talk radio hosts and groups like Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania and the Club for Growth, for going after Brightbill and Jubelirer. Democrats, as usual, were AWOL.

As for the future of reform in Pennsylvania, the genie is out of the bottle. It's going to be much harder for legislators to get away with all the shenanigans they've pulled in the past. The voters are on to them. It's going to be much harder for legislative leaders to control rank-and-file members. Let's not forget that the party bosses went to the rank-and-file last year and told them to vote for the pay raise and there would be no consequences. Tell that to the 17 legislators who were voted out of office Tuesday.

I predicted in a column back in January that when the dust settles on the 2006 election cycle — the retirements, the primary and the general election — Pennsylvania would have 50 to 60 new state legislators. So far, 30 incumbents have retired, at least 17 lost in the primary and I'm betting that another 15 to 20 incumbents will lose in November. Having 50 to 60 new legislators, coupled with the incumbents who voted against the pay raise and want genuine reform, could mean a new reform majority that will give House Speaker John Perzel sleepless nights.

Finally, everyone involved in the "People's Revolution" against the entrenched incumbency should be proud of the achievements on Primary Election Day. But let's not go overboard. There are many obstacles ahead. As I've said before, revolutions are not won overnight.

People think the United States declared its independence in 1776 and England surrendered. It didn't happen that way. The American Revolution lasted nearly seven years — until 1783. Real change is hard. We're in the same situation in Pennsylvania. We've made great strides to gain our independence from the political aristocracy that rules Harrisburg. But we have many more battles ahead.

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