Tuesday, May 30, 2006

We deserve a better state government

One out of five incumbent Pennsylvania legislators facing primary challengers on May 16 lost.

On the surface, that may not sound like a big deal, but considering that the re-election rate of Pennsylvania legislators hovers around 97 percent, it was a historic weeding out of many career politicians.

And the housecleaning isn't over yet. Come Nov. 7, all 203 members of the House, 25 members of the Senate and the governor face re-election and almost all of them will have competition on the ballot. Voters will get another chance to fire a lot more deadbeat politicians.

Now that the initial shock of getting kicked in the rump by voters is over, politicians in Harrisburg have begun talking about ways to save their own skins come November.

It may be wishful thinking to expect meaningful property tax reform this year because the Republicans who control the House and Senate don't want Democrat Ed Rendell to campaign for re-election having delivered on his No. 1 promise — cut property taxes.

But the word "reform" is being heard everywhere in Harrisburg these days. If the incumbents who survived the primary don't start producing, many more of them will join their colleagues on the unemployment line.

To make sure that reform is more than just talk, an unusual mix of organizations has formed a coalition that is pushing a "Roadmap to Reform."

The campaign was announced last week in Harrisburg by nine organizations representing the left, center and right of the political spectrum. The coalition listed 10 ways the legislature can improve the way the people's business is conducted in Harrisburg and it challenged politicians to have the reforms in place before Oct. 1.

The organizations proposing the "Roadmap to Reform" are: Common Cause Pennsylvania; Commonwealth Foundation, Democracy Rising PA, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Citizens for Legislator Accountability, Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Rock the Capital, Stop the Illegal Pay Raise Inc. and Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania.

The "Roadmap to Reform" includes steps to make government transparent and elections more competitive, according to Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA. It also includes a call to convene the state’s first general constitutional convention since 1873.

Key elements of the 'Roadmap' include:

• Banning lawmakers from taking gifts and entertainment from lobbyists.

• Posting all legislative votes for the public within 24 hours.

• Passing an open records law for the legislature.

• Requiring the posting of lawmakers' expenditures and salary/benefits information online.

• Making lawmakers' health care insurance benefits consistent with the private sector.

• Banning fund-raisers while the legislature is in session.

• Authorizing and funding a constitutional convention to explore further reform.

It's an ambitious agenda, but why not shoot for the moon? The biggest obstacle to these reforms is the legislators themselves (and Gov. Ed Rendell) who like the status quo in Harrisburg. Now that the voters have the legislators over a barrel, there's no time like the present to make demands for better government.

The complete reform agenda can be reviewed at

In the meantime, start calling your local legislators and demand that these reforms be voted on as quickly as possible.

If that means legislators bang down the door of Republican House Speaker John "Reform Stops Here" Perzel, start knocking. If that means legislators can't go on their annual two-month summer vacation, too bad.

These people make $150,000 a year in salary and benefits for a part-time job. They spend an average of 77 days a year in session in Harrisburg. If they want to keep their cushy jobs, they’d better start doing something for the voters.

And start asking the challengers who are planing to run in November, including the candidates who defeated the 17 incumbents in the primary, where they stand on these reform issues.

It's time for politicians to start working for the people who hired them — and who can fire them in November if they don't do the job.

Friday, May 26, 2006

First Bush, then Swann visit Pottstown area

All of a sudden, the Pottstown area is the political center of the universe.

President Bush paid a visit Wednesday to the Limerick nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Pottstown before heading to Philadelphia to raise money for two area congressmen facing tough re-election campaigns.

On Thursday, GOP gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann took a trolley tour of Pottstown before addressing a group of supporters outside Pottstown Borough Hall.

It's no coincidence Bush and Swann spent time in the Pottstown area. The re-election of Congressman Jim Gerlach -- and possibly Republican control of the House -- could be at stake as we head to the mid-term elections. Gerlach is being targeted by the Democrats, who are prepared to spend whatever it takes to replace him with liberal Lois Murphy.

The problem isn't Gerlach. He's a moderate Republican who works hard for his constituents. The problem is that the 6th District was drawn up by political insiders from Washington, D.C., who didn't have a clue about the changing demographics in the Philadelphia suburbs. Gerlach won the district in 2002 against a surprisingly strong Democratic challenger and then barely held on in 2004, beating back Murphy, a longtime lobbyist, by a few thousand votes.

Swann's visit to Pottstown is important for his chances to unseat Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who was elected in 2002 mainly by voters in Philadelphia and the four suburban counties around the City of Brotherly Love.

Considering Rendell won only 18 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, he doesn't have a lot of room for error in his re-election bid. Rendell must hold on to every vote in the Philadelphia region, especially the suburbs, or he'll be Pennsylvania's first one-term governor since the state constitution was amended 40 years to allow governors to serve consecutive terms.

Western Montgomery County, where Pottstown is located, is in play in 2006. While the eastern half of the county, which borders Philadelphia, is becoming more Democratic, Republicans still hold a registration advantage as you move further away from Philly.

Republicans have had recent success in places like Pottstown, where they were able to oust a longtime Democratic mayor and win three seats on the local town council last year. The election of Republican Mayor Sharon Valentine-Thomas and GOP council members Mark Gibson, Jim Vlahos and Greg Berry took many political observers by surprise in 2005.

It was no coincidence to find all four officials riding the trolley with Swann Thursday and introducing the GOP gubernatorial candidate to potential voters.

Valentine-Thomas and Swann talked about the resurgence of the GOP in Pottstown and how to build on that momentum to help Swann during part of the trolley ride. Also aboard were Swann's running-mate, lieutenant governor candidate Jim Matthews, and state Rep. Tom Quigley. State Sen. John Rafferty, another popular area Republican, tagged along for part of the tour.

Swann hammered away at Rendell's broken promises on property tax reform. Rendell promised voters in 2002 he would reduce the tax burden on homeowners by at least 30 percent. In Rendell's first three years in office, the tax burden on Pennsylvania residents has gone up nearly $1.5 billion, according to Swann.

One of the best lines Swann had concerned his relative inexperience in politics. Comparing himself to a veteran politician like Ed Rendell who has decades in government but has failed to deliver on his promises, Swann said, "If that's what experience does for you, I'm happy not to have any experience."

Bush did well on Wednesday speaking to several hundred employees at the Limerick nuclear plant about the nation's need to ease its dependence on foreign oil. Despite his low job approval numbers, Bush received an enthusiastic welcome from nuclear plant workers when he said he'd like to see the U.S. rely more on nuclear energy.

In Philadelphia, Bush helped raise $450,000 for Gerlach and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. The president said Gerlach and Fitzpatrick were "two of the young stars of the United States Congress" and both deserved re-election.

Fitzpatrick is running against a lawyer by the name of Patrick Murphy, no relation to Lois Murphy, who is also a lawyer and a former campaign worker for Ed Rendell.

Expect Pennsylvania -- and Pottstown in particular -- to receive more attention from state and national candidates as we get closer to the Nov. 7 election.

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.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Political winds of change in Pennsylvania

Incumbent Pennsylvania legislators who did not face challengers in the May 16 primary shouldn't feel too confident that they've survived the voter backlash.

Only 61 of the 228 legislators whose terms expire in 2006 faced opponents in the primary. But 18 of the incumbents were already sent packing by the voters, primarily by disgruntled conservative Republicans, in a political upheaval not seen in Pennsylvania for two decades.

The bloodbath included the top two Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Senate, President Pro Tempore Robert Jubilirer and Majority Leader Chip Brightbill, who collectively spent $2.5 million to defend their seats against unknown and under-funded challengers. Jubilirer and Brightbill weren't just defeated at the polls, they were slapped around by voters.

Photos of Brightbill and Jubilirer posing with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell were widely circulated by conservatives. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Those photos may have cost Brightbill and Jubilerer thousands of votes.

Any friend of liberal Ed Rendell is no friend of the Republican Party. That's the message Republican primary voters sent to Brightbill and Jubilirer, widely regarded as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only.)

Now comes a reality check for other incumbents. Almost all of the 40 incumbents who won on May 16 will face challengers in the Nov. 7 general election. And there's another 50 to 60 candidates waiting for a chance to take on incumbents in a year when voters want blood.

That includes independent, Libertarian, Green Party and Constitution Party members. There's even a Socialist Party member planning to run against a Republican incumbent in mostly-GOP Chester County. Don't look now, but Democracy is breaking out all over Pennsylvania.

How willing are voters to vote for somebody other than the incumbent?

Consider this. James Babb, a Libertarian who plans to challenge Rep. Carole Rubley in the 157th House District reports that he collected all of the signatures he needed for his nominating petition in one day — Tuesday, May 16.

Pennsylvania election law requires third-party and independent candidates to collect 466 signatures from district voters to qualify for the ballot in the 157th District, according to the Babb campaign.

The Babb for Pennsylvania volunteer team completed the task months before the Aug. 1 deadline. Registered Republicans and Democrats who showed up to vote in their primaries gladly filled page after page with their signatures.

"Now voters in our district will have a true choice in the fall," Babb said. "Many voters in our district are concerned about the never ending tax hikes and runaway spending authorized by incumbent Carole Rubley. I look forward to debating these issues at the earliest opportunity. I want to know why she keeps taking more and more of our hard-earned money."

Here's the rub. Rubley, who has represented the 157th District since 1993, did not vote for the July 2005 pay raise. She did not take the money as unvouchered expenses. Rubley has generally been response to the people of her district and is a member of the Jefferson Reform Initiative, a group calling for major changes in the way state business is conducted in Harrisburg.

In other words, Rubley one of the few incumbents who could make the case that she deserves re-election.

But she now faces two opponents in November. In addition to Babb, Rubley has to get past Democrat Rich Ciamacca.

The 157th House District includes the townships of Schuylkill and Tredyffrin and the borough of Phoenixville in Chester County and parts of the townships of Lower Providence and West Norriton in Montgomery County. It's going to be an interesting race in the fall.

Babb's platform includes a pledge to personally read all legislation that he votes for, and cite the exact clause in the Pennsylvania constitution that authorizes any new law he supports. He also pledges to pursue the repeal of all existing laws not explicitly authorized by the constitution. He advocates common sense, free-market solutions instead of expanded government power.

More information about the campaign can be found at

So far, 18 incumbents have been punished by the voters and another four races are too close to call. Coupled with the 30 incumbents who retired rather than face the voters, we’ve already got nearly 50 new legislators headed to Harrisburg after November.

I predict another 15 to 20 incumbents will lose in the Nov. 7 general election. That will give us 60 to 70 new legislators. The people's revolution is on!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Payback: Pennsylvania voters get their revenge

The incumbents had the money. They had the name recognition. They had the party machinery behind them. They had all the advantages. But they still lost.

Pennsylvania voters punished the pay-jacking Pennsylvania Legislature in the May 16 primary election, firing the state Senate’s two top Republicans, who collectively spent more than $2 million to defend their seats against unknown opponents.

More than a dozen other incumbents were voted out of office in Tuesday's primary. And it's only the beginning.

Only 61 of the 228 Legislators whose terms expire in 2006 faced primary challengers. There's another 50 candidates waiting to take on incumbents in the November general election. Independent and third-party candidates still have until Aug. 1 to gather enough signatures to get their names on the ballot.

Incumbents are not out of the woods yet.

The pundits kept saying that a low-voter turnout would help the incumbents, but they were wrong. The people who went to the polls Tuesday had a specific goal in mind — punish the incumbents, especially the leadership.

The experts kept saying that the anti-incumbent movement was regional, confined to the central and western parts of Pennsylvania. That wasn't the case, either.

Berks County voters did their part in helping punish the pay-jacking Pennsylvania legislators on Tuesday, firing four of the five legislators who had ballot competition.

The big catch was state Sen. Chip Brightbill, who paid for his arrogance and his eagerness to work closely with Gov. Ed Rendell in pushing through massive tax hikes, outrageous increases in state spending and the infamous July 2005 pay raise.

Despite spending more than $800,000 to buy back his Senate seat, Brightbill lost it to a tire salesman named Mike Folmer by a landslide. Brightbill, a 20-year-veteran of the Senate, managed to pick up just 37 percent of the vote to Folmer’s 63 percent in Lebanon and Berks counties.

The unsung heroes who helped Folmer and other challengers defeat the entrenched incumbents were the state's conservative activists and bloggers.

Led by organizations like Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania (YCOP) and its newly-minted Political Action Committee and the Club for Growth, the state's conservatives took out the trash by sending Brightbill and Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubilerer to their political graveyards.

Jubelirer received 36 percent of the vote. Two challengers took the other 66 percent, with John Eichelberger winning the GOP nomination with 44 percent of the vote.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats failed to clean up their side of the aisle on Tuesday, re-electing Rep. Bill DeWeese and Rep. Mike Veon, two Democratic leaders of the July 2005 pay-jacking. Veon was the only member of the Legislature who voted against the pay raise repeal last November.

In Berks County, voters ousted two veteran GOP House members, Dennis Leh and Paul Semmel. Both voted for the pay raise and took the money early as unvouchered expenses. Despite more than 35 years of service in Harrisburg, Leh and Semmel paid the price for betraying their constituents.

The lone Democrat in Berks facing a primary challenge, Dante Santoni Jr., survived with just 45 percent of the vote because his two challengers (John DelCollo and Irv Livingood) split the anti-incumbent vote. The challengers received a total of 2,600 votes compared to 2,103 for Santoni, who has so far failed to distinguish himself in 13 years in Harrisburg.

The previously smug Santoni faces the prospect of seeking re-election in November with 55 percent of Democratic voters having already rejected him. His return to the Legislature is far from assured. The Republican challenger is Hal Baker, a political newcomer who beat out two other GOP candidates.

A fifth Berks County legislator facing opposition, Rep. Bob Allen, lost to challenger Gary Hornberger. So much for voters in the southeastern part of the state not being as upset with the pay raise or the lack of action on property tax relief.

The revolution is on. The people of Pennsylvania won another major victory Tuesday. The Nov. 7 general election cannot come soon enough.

If you're looking for more analysis on Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary results, tune in to the Pennsylvania Cable Network's "Journalist Roundtable" program this week. One of the guests on the show will be "yours truly" making his television debut. If you missed the initial broadcast Thursday, PCN will repeat the show Sunday at 7 p.m. and again at 11 p.m.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Our future is at stake on May 16

Eight out of 10 registered voters usually stay home on primary election day in Pennsylvania. If that trend continues this Tuesday, we're doomed.

I've written nearly 50 columns in the past 10 months about the sad state of affairs of Pennsylvania government. Each column averaged 850 words. That's more than 42,000 words I've used to try to get through to readers that time is running out.

If you care about your family, you must vote Tuesday. If you care about your children's future or your grandchildren's future, you must vote Tuesday. If you care about your job, you must vote Tuesday.

If you believe that government should fear the people instead of the other way around, you must vote Tuesday.

If you believe that power should rest in the hands of 254 self-serving, career politicians (the most expensive legislature in the country and a governor who has a mortgaged Pennsylvania's future to the casino industry) instead of the 13 million Pennsylvania residents, send the same people back to Harrisburg and forget about open, honest, accountable government in your lifetime.

I've given you dozens of arguments why reform is needed in Pennsylvania. I've given you numerous examples of how our hard-earned tax money has been wasted by a political aristocracy that lives in luxury while the rest of us struggle to pay our bills. I've made you aware of a handful of heroes who are fighting to make things right in this state.

If you are contemplating voting for an incumbent on Tuesday, stay home. Clearly no measure of reason, no amount of logic, no levelheaded argument will ever get through to you. You're either related to a politician or you benefit financially from having a particular incumbent in office. Otherwise, you'd vote for change.

The people's revolution is on. The people won important battles. On Nov. 8, the voters rejected the retention of a state Supreme Court justice for the first time in history and nearly ousted a second justice. A week later, a fearful Legislature repealed its outrageous 2005 pay grab.

Since then, the people of Pennsylvania have shamed 30 incumbent legislators into retiring rather than face the voters in 2006. And a record number of challengers emerged to take on incumbents this year.

The decisive battle to retake this state back from the political elite will come Tuesday. If the voters can knock out at least 50 incumbents, the political warlords who control Harrisburg will lose their grip on power.

We, the people, will gain the advantage and we will continue the revolution through the Nov. 7 election.

It all comes down to this one election. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, young and old must unite to take back Pennsylvania. We deserve better. How many of you show up at the polls and how many do the right thing will determine Pennsylvania's future. There's nothing else for me to say on the matter.

The eyes of the nation are on Pennsylvania. The Wall Street Journal ran an article Monday on the sad state of Pennsylvania politics, "Incumbents Under Fire." The New York Times profiled Russ Diamond a couple of weeks ago. Lynn Swann has been featured in The Washington Post and on several network news programs.

I will leave you with some comments from three astute political observers that put Tuesday's election into perspective.

Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, had this to say on why reform hinges on the May 16 election results: "If incumbents win, I think it's all over. It's all dead." Madonna also warns about the death of competition in Pennsylvania elections: "If we don't do it now, the incumbents will continue to get re-elected."

Brad Bumstead, a political columnist and state capitol reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wrote this in a recent column, "Voters, save yourselves," about the consequences if the party bosses retain control: "It's scarier than a Stephen King novel. Here's the scenario: All legislative leaders win in the May 16 primary. Then what happens? Will we see a reign of terror against taxpayers and journalists? It will set back efforts to reform the General Assembly for, perhaps, a decade. It would be a dark chapter in Pennsylvania history."

Russ Diamond, the founder or PaCleanSweep and independent candidate for governor, had this to say on what happens if challengers fail to outs incumbents: "The Legislature is capable of anything. I wouldn't put it past them to reinstate the pay raise unless a substantial number of legislators are swept out of office this year. Imagine if we can't dump these people after what they've done to this state. What kind of message does that send?"

Friday, May 12, 2006

My secret life as a Democrat

I hope this doesn't go any further than it has to, but I've been keeping a secret for the past few weeks. I feel the need to tell someone.

I'm a Democrat.

I never thought I'd utter those words. But it's true. Says so on my voter registration card. As of April 12, 2006, I have been a registered Democrat.

Before you start thinking that I've gone off the deep end, I haven't turned completely to the Dark Side. I can assure you I will not be voting for any of these presidential hopefuls in 2008: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards or Al Gore.

I've written more than 40 columns in the past year asking voters to oust the political aristocracy that has sacked and pillaged the state of Pennsylvania.

I've argued that it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat — both parties have let Pennsylvania taxpayers down. The leaders of both parties must be removed. That starts with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican House Speaker John Perzel.

What kind of political commentator would I be if I didn't practice what I preach? I switched my party affiliation so I can do my part to get rid of a career politician who has accomplished nothing for his constituents.

Prior to April 12, I was a registered Republican for 27 years. Despite being a lifelong Republican voter (and this is where I differ from the Kool-Aid drinking liberals who will defend Ed Rendell to the end), I can state categorically that Pennsylvania would be much better off without the following GOP leaders: Speaker Perzel, Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbill, Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubilerer, House Majority Leader Sam Smith and House Majority Whip David Argall. Can we exile this motley crew to Delaware?

They may be registered as Republican, but every one of those people has betrayed Republican principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government interference and accountability to the people. All should be voted out of office this year.

Same goes for the Democrats, including Ed Rendell, House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese, Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, Senate Minority Whip Mike O’Pake and House Minority Whip Mike Veon.

I live in a legislative district that is predominantly Democratic. Registered Democrats have a 2-1 edge over Republicans in the 126th District. It's one of the "safe districts" that the Republican-controlled legislature carved up for the minority party so it can call in favors from Democratic cronies when needed. The July 2005 pay raise would not have passed unless Democrats joined the Republicans to push it through both houses of the legislature.

If I want to have a say on ousting my state legislator, who is a Democrat, I needed to switch my party registration in order to vote in the Democratic primary. That's how strongly I feel about removing the self-serving politician in my district.

On May 16, I will vote for someone other than Rep. Dante Santoni Jr., a hanger-on who does what he's told by the party bosses. In 14 years in Harrisburg, Santoni has made as much an impact on state politics as a potted plant. He's sponsored zero bills, chaired no committees and brought back a few thousand dollars for projects in his district while collecting more than $1 million in salary and perks from taxpayers. Voters in the 126th District could find a better legislator than Santoni by closing their eyes and pointing to a name in the phone book.

Fortunately, there are two good candidates running against Santoni this year. I've decided to support Irv Livingood, a mechanic who is running under the PaCleanSweep banner. I've met Livingood several times in recent months. I like the guy. His campaign theme is straightforward: "A common man with common sense for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

I've never met Santoni. In fact, I've never seen this guy in person in the 13 years I've lived in his district. Santoni's campaign theme is "Working for us." I'm not sure who "us" includes. I know he hasn't done a thing for me in 13 years.

The worst-case scenario in the 126th District would be Livingood and the other Democratic challenger, John DelCollo, splitting the anti-incumbent vote, thus allowing Santoni to win the nomination on May 16.

If that happens, I will get another shot at ousting Santoni in November because there are also two Republican candidates on the primary ballot. One of them will be the GOP nominee in the November general election.

Another reason I decided to become a Democrat is the opportunity to vote for Gene Stilp, the Harrisburg-area activist running for lieutenant governor. Stilp was the first person in Pennsylvania to stand up to the Harrisburg Hogs, filing a lawsuit against the long-forgotten pay raise legislators gave themselves in 1995. Stilp filed another lawsuit when the larcenous legislators pulled off another heist in July 2005.

A vote for Stilp is a vote against the corrupt Harrisburg political machine.

While I'm in the voting booth, I plan to have a little fun with the ballot. I will cast a vote for Chuck Pennacchio over Silent Bob Casey, the Forrest Gump of Pennsylvania politics. And I'll be voting for Mike Leibowitz over Lois Murphy, an Ed Rendell protégé and darling of the far left.

If you're still upset about my turning to the political Dark Side, I promise that I will change my registration the day after the primary election.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On what it means to be an immigrant

America is a nation of immigrants. It is a nation built by immigrants. The United States owes much of its success to the millions of immigrants who came here to work in its factories and farms and fight its wars.

America is also a nation that may not survive because of immigrants.

An estimated 12 million illegal aliens are living in the United States today. That number grows every day as states and the federal government refuse to protect our porous border with Mexico. These illegals don't pay taxes. They don't vote. They don't serve on juries. Many of them drive without licenses. Some have committed serious crimes.

There's no question illegal aliens contribute to the U.S. economy, many holding down jobs that nobody else wants. But let's not forget that they are not citizens. They are not entitled to the same rights as U.S. citizens.

America has been the destination for millions of people who were no longer wanted by their own counties. The fled religious or political persecution. They fled dictatorships. They fled famine and disease. Many wanted a better life for themselves and their families. They saw opportunity in the United States that they couldn't find anywhere else in the world.

My family came to the United States from Cyprus, where I was born. We came here legally. We learned the English language. We went to school. We paid our taxes. We renounced the citizenship of our birth country for our new homeland. We went to the county courthouse for a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens.

Today's immigrant is a different case. The first act of millions of illegal aliens is to break U.S. laws by sneaking into the country. Now they demand citizenship after they've broken the law instead of earning the privilege of becoming an American.

As a naturalized American citizen and one-time immigrant, I am appalled by the recent demonstrations, boycotts and calls for amnesty by and for illegal aliens. The actions of labor leaders and politicians who pander to the illegals because they see them as potential union members or a large voting block are reprehensible.

The problem of illegal immigration can't be taken lightly. The arguments that Mexicans are already here or there's too many of them to do anything about it won't wash. Being part of a mob doesn't make your crime any less serious. You still broke the law. You still have to answer for it.

A nation that cannot secure its borders will cease to remain a sovereign nation. Mexico is not the 51st state of the United States. As we learned in New Orleans with last year's devastation from Hurricane Katrina, you have to fix the breech in the dam before you can start cleaning up the flood. We still haven't plugged the holes in our border with Mexico. Every day, hundreds or perhaps thousands of illegal aliens cross into the U.S. illegally.

Those 12 million didn't come here overnight. They came day-by-day, year-after-year while our politicians looked the other way. Our current dilemma is decades in the making. It's as much Bill Clinton's fault as it is George Bush's. Neither administration has taken the necessary steps to secure our borders.

And let's not forget that the Sept. 11 highjackers were illegal aliens. Imagine what our response would have been if the 19 men who flew airplanes into buildings on 9/11 were Latinos instead of Muslims. How quickly would we have secured the border with Mexico?

This is a complicated issue, but it's also one ripe for demagoguery. It's too important to leave it in the hands of Congress, the most embarrassing deliberative body this side of the League of Nations.

Let's put immigration — including key issues such as deporting illegal aliens and protecting our national borders — to a national vote. A binding referendum. Take the decision away from pandering politicians and give it to the people.

Most Americans believe citizenship comes with responsibility. Sneaking into the U.S. illegally does not entitle you to anything except deportation if you're caught. Open borders and blanket amnesty should be taken off the table.

What's missing from today's new wave of illegal immigrants (and it was evident during the recent work stoppages and demonstrations) is the willingness to assimilate into American society. Assimilation, the process that leads to unity among America's diverse population, goes hand-in-hand with immigration.

That doesn't mean you have to abandon your cultural or religious heritage. It means you have to be willing to make some sacrifice to become an American. The flagrant refusal by so many to abide by U.S. immigration laws disrespects the tens of millions of immigrants who came to this country legally and followed established rules to become American citizens.

The majority of Americans, including most immigrants, believe new citizens should learn to read and write the language of their adopted country. Most Americans believe the immigrants should know the basic history of their new nation. They should know who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were. They should be able to tell you how many stars and stripes are found on the American flag and what they symbolize. They should know the Pledge of Allegiance by heart and take it to heart.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is not just a way to improve your economic lot in life. It's not an elaborate "guest worker" program to send money to third-world countries like Mexico. It's believing and promising with all your hear that you will defend and support the Constitution of the greatest nation the world has ever known. If you're not willing to do that, you can't call yourself an American.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Gene Stilp brings 'Squeal or No Squeal Tour' to Berks County

Activist inflates pink pigs to protest pay grab, perks

A 25-foot-long inflatable pink pig briefly made its area debut outside the Douglassville offices of a veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker.

The political publicity stunt by citizen activist Gene Stilp came to an abrupt end when the owner of the building demanded that Stilp remove the pig -- and himself -- from private property.

Stilp, who has driven across Pennsylvania with the pig in the backseat of his 1992 Buick, is stopping at district offices of legislative leaders to remind voters that the legislators voted themselves a pay raise last year and some never gave the money back when the raise was repealed.

The most recent target was state Rep. Dennis Leh, a Republican who rents office space in a commercial building off Route 662 in Douglassville.

The pig, once fully inflated, blocked the entrance to the building's parking lot. A large banner on the side of the pig read: "The Legislative Perk Barrel Game That The Voters Pay For." Stilp inflated a smaller piglet to bring attention to the legislature's lucrative pension plans.

Minutes after inflating the 15-foot-tall pig as part of the "Squeal or No Squeal Tour," Stilp was forced to deflate the pig and end his impromptu press conference in mid-sentence when the owner of the building rushed into the parking lot and demanded that Stilp and his pig leave the premises.

Stilp, a Harrisburg-area Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor, complied with the landlord’s instructions and packed the pig back into his Buick.

Leh was not in his office and missed the pig display. Stilp left a message with Leh's office manager asking the longtime state representative to return any money collected as "unvouchered expenses" during the four months the pay raise was in effect last summer, and also pass legislation prohibiting politicians from collecting higher pensions as a result of the temporary spike in their salaries.

About 30 state legislators who retired this year rather than face the voters will get higher pensions because they voted themselves pay raises last year, according to Stilp, who has also challenged the practice of "unvouchered expenses" in court.

Leh, a Republican who has served in the state legislature for 20 years, is seeking re-election to another two-year term in the 130th District.

He is being challenged in the May 16 primary by Bill Reed, a Fleetwood-area business owner who is affiliated with PaCleanSweep, a group that is calling for the defeat of all incumbent state legislators and significant reforms in the way the legislature conducts business. David Kessler, a Democrat, will face the primary winner in November.

Stilp has driven the giant pink pig thousands of miles, criss-crossing Pennsylvania to bring attention to the lucrative salary and benefits legislators have voted themselves.

Stilp is targetting legislative leaders and incumbent legislators who may be vulnerable in 2006.

Recent stops included Philadelphia, where he set up the pig in front of House Speaker John Perzel's office, Hamburg, which has district offices for four legislative leaders: Sen. Chip Brightbill, Sen. James Rhodes, Rep. Bob Allen and Rep. David Argall, and Altoona, where Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubilirer has his district office.

What many voters don't know is that the unvouchered expenses that were returned by legislators went into slush funds controlled by legislative leaders instead of the state treasury, Stilp said.

"Leh can get the unvouchered expenses back through a side door by playing ball with the leadership," Stilp said. "Harrisburg continues to be a cesspool. The legislators think of themselves first and the people second. It should be the other way around."

Stilp also took a few swipes at Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, who is seeking re-election to another four-year term and has the support of Gov. Ed Rendell.

Knoll, who is 75 and has exhibited erratic behavior at several public appearances, is "totally incapable of stepping into the governor’s shoes" should something happen to Rendell, Stilp said.

Stilp also questioned what Knoll does with her time as lieutenant governor.

"She spent $8 million over the past four years and what do you have for it? Nothing," Stilp said.

Stilp, who has a law degree but doesn't practice law, also filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the July 2005 legislative pay raise. That case is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but a decision is unlikely to be announced before the primary election, Stilp said.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

You call this tax relief?

With apologies to Peggy Lee, my first reaction to the news that a Legislative committee had reached agreement on "property tax relief" for Pennsylvanians was: "Is that all there is?"

This is what the most expensive state Legislature in the country came up with since Gov. Ed Rendell called a special session last Sept. 29 to address the property tax squeeze on Pennsylvania homeowners?

While Ed Rendell and the Legislature dine on filet mignon, taxpayers fight for table scraps.

The Harrisburg Hogs, who average $150,000 a year in salary and benefits, are throwing a bone to senior citizens in the hope they can fool enough of them to stay home on May 16 instead of showing up in record numbers to throw the bums out.

Two weeks before the primary election that could shape the future of Pennsylvania for decades to come, the Legislature and Rendell — the same people who brought you the July 2005 payjacking — are going to send a tiny percentage of Pennsylvania seniors a couple of hundred bucks in 2007. Maybe.

This is not property tax relief. It's a royal scam from the Pennsylvania aristocracy. Rendell will borrow money from the state lottery to give more seniors a rebate next year. The number of senior eligible for a few hundred dollars in rebates will go from 320,000 to roughly 740,000. Last time I checked, Pennsylvania's population was almost 13 million.

Terry Madonna, the noted political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said in a television interview Tuesday that the tax rebates will go to about 2 percent of Pennsylvania's elderly. The other 98 percent get nothing. As in zero, nada, zilch. Nothing for the middle class. Nothing for working Pennsylvanians. Nothing for the illegal immigrants who protested around the state Monday.

Any day now, expect Rendell and his co-conspirators in the payjacking (the Chip Brightbills, Robert Jubelirers and John Perzels of the world) to be high-fiving each other for passing the Save the Incumbents' Butts Act of 2006.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We've been fooled time and time again by Rendell and the Legislators.

State Rep. Sam Rohrer, the Berks County legislator who was instrumental in crafting the Commonwealth Caucus plan told the Reading Eagle that nobody who supports substantive tax relief could possibly vote for the House-Senate compromise plan. "It's cowardice," Rohrer told the newspaper.

Of course it's cowardice. It's election-year pandering at its worst. More promises. More IOUs. More lies from self-serving politicians. Give us another two years or four years in office and we'll keep stringing you idiots along. That's the bottom line from Rendell and Co.

A problem that has plagued the state for 30 years is suddenly "solved" two weeks before an election that is shaping up to be a nightmare for incumbents? Something is rotten in the state of Pennsylvania, especially when 40 Senators voted "yes" to the compromise plan Tuesday and sent it to the House.

The gambling revenues that Rendell is counting on are still two years away. And the key issue with slots revenues is that the money for tax relief will come only when gambling revenues (translation: losses by gamblers) reach $1 billion.

In other words, Pennsylvania seniors, who have been known to hit a slot machine or two, will have to lose $1 billion before Fast Eddie sends them a rebate of $250.

A roomful of monkeys could have crafted a better tax relief plan than the one Pennsylvania politicians are about to pawn off on unsuspecting voters.

Here's what won't change if Rendell signs this bill into law. Your school taxes will still go up this year and the tax increase will be much higher than the $250 rebates Rendell and his cronies are promising next year.

Only in Pennsylvania can voters demand tax relief and be forced by politicians into accepting tax increases, which is at the heart of this week's legislation. Residents of school districts that approve increases in the earned income tax would be the only ones eligible for Rendell's rebates.

This governor has never met a tax hike he didn't sign into law. He puts Hillary Clinton to shame in the Hall of Fame of tax-and-spend liberals.

Rendell's signature on this bill is a death warrant for Pennsylvania property owners. Remember that on May 16 when you see an incumbent's name on the ballot and Nov. 7 when Rendell wants another four years.