With attention riveted on the unfolding efforts to contain the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus little note was made of the passing of former congressman and Pennsylvania Auditor General Don Bailey. Bailey had been out of the spotlight for many years, but was a major political player for much of a generation.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Don Bailey entered public life as a reformer and ended his legal career as a crusader for civil rights. His first foray into politics came in 1978 when long-time Westmoreland County Congressman John Dent announced his retirement. A large field of candidates emerged including such heavy weights as Jim Manderino who at the time was the powerful Majority Leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
But Manderino and the other contenders were tied to the county’s reigning political machine and winds of change were blowing. Bailey positioned himself as a reformer gathering 23% of the vote, which was enough to win in the eleven candidate field. He subsequently won the General Election and was re-elected to congress again in 1980.
Bailey’s congressional career was derailed in 1982 when Pennsylvania lost seats due to slow population growth relative to other states and his district was combined with that of Cambria County’s John Murtha. Bailey and Murtha squared off in a primary of incumbents which Murtha won.
His time in public service cut short Bailey then set his sights on a political come-back. The statewide office of Auditor General had been sullied by a scandal involving Al Benedict who was forced from office after being convicted in a bribery and racketeering scheme. Again Bailey played the role of reformer wining the post in 1984 with 52% of the vote in a year when Ronald Reagan was re-elected president in a 49-state landslide.
That was the last time Don Bailey would taste electoral victory. In 1986 he ran for the United States Senate losing to Congressman Bob Edgar who in turn was defeated by Arlen Specter. In 1988 he ran for re-election as Auditor General and was defeated by Allegheny County Commissioner Barbara Hafer. Bailey would subsequently try to regain his job as
Auditor General in 1992, but lost the Democratic Primary. He mounted a quixotic bid for Governor in 1998 and ran as an independent for Attorney General in 2012, but lost both races.
Out of office Don Bailey pursued a legal career that was rife with controversy. Billing himself as a civil rights lawyer he took on a wide range of clients which other attorneys would not. He committed a cardinal sin in the legal profession by accusing federal judges of malfeasance telling the media: “The system is corrupt. The Supreme Court in Pennsylvania is corrupt and everybody knows it.”
Those words and other like them punctured the carefully crafted façade of the judiciary being independent of politics and free from corruption. In later years high profile scandals forced a number of judges – including state Supreme Court justices from office. That did not save Bailey’s legal career however as a disciplinary board recommend suspension of his law license, a recommendation the courts approved.
It would be interesting to see how Don Bailey would fare in today’s political climate. Political correctness, particularly on the Left, has confined the politically ambitious to a very narrow space. Bailey could not operate within that space even during a time when the Democratic Party tolerated a diversity of views.
Don Bailey operated in a political world that no longer exists. Allegations of corruption today are taken for more seriously than in the past when many were simply swept under the rug. The relative moderation of such Presidents as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton has been replaced by rigid Left wing orthodoxy – and Don Bailey was never one to conform.
The passing of Don Bailey is significant not only for his contributions while in office, but it also signals the passing of an entire era in Pennsylvania politics.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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