Jewish World Review May 15, 2006 / 17 Iyar 5766
John H. Fund
Incumbents under fire
Tomorrow's primaries in Pennsylvania may be an early indicator of just how mad voters especially Republicans are at incumbents this year.
Last July, the GOP-controlled Legislature, in cahoots with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, raised legislative salaries by between 16% and 54% without public debate, notice or review. They passed the raise in a 2 a.m. vote and also evaded a constitutional ban on midterm pay raises by pocketing much of the increase immediately as "unvouchered expenses." Promptly labeled "Harrisburg Hogs," the legislators became the brunt of a furious citizen revolt led by talk radio and the Internet that led to the unprecedented voter rejection last November of a sitting state Supreme Court justice, who'd also gotten a pay raise. Another justice was almost defeated. Two weeks later the Legislature repealed the pay raise with only one dissenting vote.
The anti-pay-raise activists aren't satisfied. They say the episode simply revealed how arrogant and out of touch legislative leaders are on a variety of fronts. A group called PACleanSweep.com is calling for the rejection of dozens of incumbents in the primary tomorrow. Most will survive, but several are getting the race of their lives. Attention is focusing on the races against three of the pay-raise ringleaders two Republicans and a Democrat. Polls show the underfinanced challengers within striking distance.
These David vs. Goliath races in a key state are worth watching for clues to the national mood. "Republicans in D.C. who are hearing complaints from their base about pork-barrel spending and waste should pay attention to how that plays out in primaries," says Rep. Robert Walker, a Republican former congressman from the Keystone State.
Political types in Indiana already are paying attention. They were shocked earlier this month when three out of 25 incumbent state legislators facing primary challengers lost. The biggest casualty was Robert Garton of Columbus, president of the state Senate and a 36-year Republican incumbent. He lost to Greg Walker, a political neophyte and tax accountant.
Mr. Garton outspent his opponent 10 to 1 and had groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in his corner. But in a move eerily similar to what happened in Pennsylvania, he set off a prairie fire of protest when he pushed through a bill to give state legislators lifetime health-insurance benefits.
Mr. Walker seized on the issue and coupled it with criticism that Sen. Garton had become a status quo politician. "Many elected officials serve for so long they become spokesmen for government, rather than those who elect them," he said. The challenger drove an orange 1970 Plymouth Valiant to emphasize the incumbent had been in office since then and that it was "time for a trade-in." He cobbled together just enough financial backing from a building contractor group and conservative school choice advocate J. Patrick Rooney to pull off a stunning upset.
The leaders behind the Pennsylvania pay grab have equal reason to be wary of their electorates. GOP Senate President Bob Jubelirer thought he had contained voter anger when he moved to end the pay raise and apologized for his "mistake." "It took the edge off the anger only momentarily," says Robert Walker, the former congressman. "There is still seething frustration about all things political." Mr. Jubelirer has had to call in all his political chits from 32 years in office to counter a challenge from John Eichelberger, a Blair County commissioner. Mr. Jubelirer has raised $1.3 million; Mr. Eichelberger, less than $200,000.
Mr. Eichelberger was spurred to run by the pay raise but he says his larger complaint is that Senator Jubelirer is a "Republican in name only" who over the past decade and a half has presided over a Senate that has blocked lawsuit reform and increased the size of state government at twice the rate of inflation. He also notes that the Senate leader has voted for the largest three tax increases in the state's history, including last year's hike in the state income tax to 3.07% from 2.8%. Mr. Jubelirer has responded by noting his support for school choice. He is also courting social conservatives by recently saying he has "evolved" into a pro-life stance after many years as a pro-choice legislator. A recent poll showed the race tied.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party has taken the unusual step of pouring $300,000 into primaries to save pay-raise incumbents. At least two mailings a week have been sent into the district of Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, several attacking his challenger, a former Lebanon City Councilman named Mike Folmer. The race has been close, with Mr. Brightbill under attack over the Legislature's failure to pass meaningful property tax relief. But the incumbent may have opened up a lead last week after his campaign publicized financial disputes between Mr. Folmer and two ex-girlfriends.
Not only Republicans are in peril. In Beaver County, Mike Veon, Democratic state House whip, is being challenged in a primary by Jay Paisley, a retired schoolteacher who is outraged that Mr. Veon was the only legislator out of 203 to vote against repeal of the pay raise. "To some extent, I'm running against myself," Mr. Veon admits. Polls show the race has been a dead heat, So far Mr. Veon's campaign has raised $719,000 in a district that only has 60,000 residents. Mr. Paisley has collected $30,000.
Many of the incumbent challengers are running on conservative themes, with some touting a "Promise to Pennsylvania" that echoes many of the themes in the 1994 GOP Contract With America. But the voter anger this year is as much populist in origin as it is conservative. "There is a general sense that those in authority ignore the concerns of average voters and have to be taught a lesson," says Pat Toomey, the former GOP congressman who now heads the free-market Club for Growth in Washington. In 2004 Mr. Toomey tapped into much of that sentiment when he won 49% of the vote in a primary challenge against four-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter. Mr. Toomey is actively supporting many of the challengers in tomorrow's primary.
So too are a few bold businessmen who believe that Pennsylvania needs new leadership if it is to compete with Sunbelt states. Greg Meakem founded the Pittsburgh-based software company FreeMarkets Inc. in the 1990s and sold it last year, making a personal profit of $500 million. Now 42 years old, he believes it's a matter of civic duty that business leaders try to reform government. That's one reason he has chipped in $45,000 to support several of Tuesday's incumbent challengers. He doesn't mince words about some of the problems he sees holding his state back: "[Public-sector] unions are the most antichange, archconservative, reactionary force in society," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Come to think of it, many of the problems bedeviling state government everywhere stem from the cozy alliance that career politicians have with unions and businesses that live off state contracts. Much the same dynamic can be seen in Washington, where spending lobbies are able to expand the size of government relentlessly, whichever party is in power. Part of the Pennsylvania anti-incumbent revolt is about a selfish pay raise. But part of it is also about the public's sense that the system is being run in the interests of everyone except that of the general public.
If incumbent heads roll in Pennsylvania tomorrow despite all of the advantages they enjoyed it may be a sign that this year's voter outrage is growing and won't be easily squelched.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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©2001, John H. Fund