Response to Reform is Not Dead!

There are two types of halftime speeches – the rousing “win one for the Gipper” speech and the in-your-face, “you are playing like a bunch of [explicatives]”.

I tried to tell reformers the “it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Pete DeCoursey prefers to quote Mickey:

“he’s gonna kick your face in pieces! That’s right! This guy doesn’t just wanna win you know, he wants to bury ya, he wants to humiliate ya, he wants to prove to the whole world that you was nothin but some kind of freak the first time out.”

Disguising his halftime speech as analysis, Pete DeCoursey responds to my Reform is Not Dead! (yet) post over at Capitolwire (see selections below). DeCoursey takes issue with my argument that several counties supported the CleanSweep effort, by implying that those pockets of the state don’t represent enough groundswell to sustain reform. Fair enough.

DeCoursey doesn’t address my other contentions – 1) that a handful of activists with a pink bus forced a massive establishment defense of judges (I imagine CleanSweep was outspent about 1,000 to 1), 2) that the dialog surrounding judicial elections was far greater than in past years – indicating public engagement, 3) that defending incumbent lawmakers from challengers in both the primary and general election is different than retaining judges and, and 4) that not even the entire reform movement was behind the CleanSweep effort.

Essentially CleanSweep was arguing that “if voters want reform they will vote out all judges.” But to conclude voters don’t care about reform, or stopped paying attention to state politics, is an overstep. More likely is that the CleanSweep argument simply wasn’t persuasive to the entire state (as I mentioned, few reformers actively supported the CleanSweep campaign, and several joined “the establishment” and endorsed the retention effort). Also see Sen. Eichelberger’s blog on why the retention was a poor measure of voter’s attitudes on reform, and why if “the establishment” thinks they can get away with doing nothing, they have another thing coming.

DeCoursey makes one valid point – that perhaps a new issue is needed. CleanSweep used the pay raise (essentially judges cashing their checks, not any judicial decision) as the sole factor in evaluating judges. But the reform movement isn’t just about the pay raise, which was merely symbolic of the corruption in Harrisburg. And we have a bevy of other issues/symbols to which we can point: including I-80 tolling, PHEAA, and Bonus-Gate.

OFF THE FLOOR: 2007 elections end any real chance of major reform.
The 2007 elections were an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ cycle.

By Peter L. DeCoursey

HARRISBURG (Nov. 7) – The Pennsylvania political establishment had its best top-to-bottom election last night in quite some time. And since that establishment – in county parties, in the Legislature, and in conference rooms at cocktail parties across the state – is opposed to reform, the chance of major reform is almost entirely gone.

You could almost hear the strains of the Darth Vader march from Star Wars, “DA DA DADA, Dadada, dadada …”

This was an “Empire Strikes Back” election for the GOP, and in general.

Old bull lawmakers, like former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, who felt they had to do some reform, will not feel forced to do so anymore.

Reformers like Eric Epstein of RockTheCapital and Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation say reform is not dead. The movement held the judges and lawmakers accountable and improved public voter education, they say. Both of those are true, but when Benefield starts saying that at least one of the statewide judges lost retention in at least seven counties, he is reaching. For one thing, there are not many lawmakers still in the Legislature who took the pay raise from those counties.

For another, that means in many of the counties, six of the seven won. Nigro and Newman lost all of those counties and a lot more in 2005.

Which counties dropped out of the reform movement? Allegheny and many of its southwestern neighbors. They went from 60-40 against statewide judge retention two years ago to 60-40 or better for it Tuesday night.

Without the southwest’s muscle, the anti-pay-raise movement is back to the counties it lived even during the Thornburgh, Ridge and Casey administrations: Dauphin, Cumberland, Lebanon, Perry, Mifflin, Huntingdon, and Juniata.

So to sum up, the reformers fired at the judges and missed. A group of Democrats and Republican dissidents tried to jettison the party’s old guard from the courthouses that provide that Old Guard’s fund-raising and patronage base. That failed.

And lawmakers watching judges roll up 60-percent retention margins, who were already blocking most real reform – and even some simple disclosure measures – have no reason to worry now.

This will mean a less open open records bill, fewer retirements from veteran committee chairmen before next year’s elections and more of “let’s get back to business” attitude. It could help Perzel win back his old post, and it will only strengthen the rearguard actions the House GOP has fought against the occasional impulsive reforms House Democrats have proposed.

Reformers have to hope they can find another issue – I-80, anyone – to ride next year. Because the horse they rode in on, and rode hard to defeat Nigro in 2005 and jettison 24 lawmakers in 2006, was put away wet and died.