One of the longest vote counts in Pennsylvania’s history is finally over and undoubtedly it will make a big difference in the way the state’s finances are managed. Senator Richard Tilghman, chair of the all encompassing senate appropriations committee, was certified in southeastern Pennsylvania’s 17th district when his opponent Democrat Lynn Yeakel grudgingly conceded a close race last week.
Tilghman’s an old fashioned guy. At age 80 he ought to be. Old habits like working twelve hours a day, answering his own phone and hanging his own campaign signs die hard. If he ever had an ounce of pretension, a commodity dealt out by the ton in Harrisburg, he probably left it back at the beach on Iwo Jima a long time ago. He’s embarrassed to talk about the medals he earned for heroism in that bloody turning point of the Pacific War over 50 years ago but that’s his style. His unassuming manner has kept Tilghman in Harrisburg for 33 years representing a district that includes Philadelphia’s Main Line in Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Earlier this year Republican experts deemed his re-election a cakewalk until Yeakel came along.
Democrat Yeakel’s yearning for big time public office goes back to 1992 when she took on Republican Arlen Specter for the US Senate and almost pulled off a coup. The aging Specter later admitted he under rated her. Energized by her numbers she entered the Democratic Gubernatorial primary in ‘94. Funding from Hillary Rodham-Clinton’s Washington based Emily PAC got her in the race and she ended up a strong also ran. Her loyalty made her the Clinton administration’s Pennsylvania poster-girl. She became Clinton’s politically appointed regional director for the Federal Department of Health and Human Services. Using her pulpit at HHS to defend the president she earned the administration’s backing entitling her to access the same campaign funding and endorsements to enter the Pennsylvania senate race that Hilary Rodham Clinton used to achieve her New York victory. Yeakel used the money well having lost to Tilghman by only 756 votes.
But Yeakel really lost in failing to understand the changes in the district in the last 6 years. She wasn’t counting the numbers that said the 17th senatorial district that used to be the stalwart of the Delaware and Montgomery County Republican machines had changed. Sure Democratic registration is at an all time high. But Yeakel didn’t look in the mirror and notice that all of us in Pennsylvania are aging. The 1990 census showed that 15% of the district was over 65 and all of us get older every day. Ten years older now. A state representative in the same district recently quipped: “seniors go to Florida to retire and come back to Pennsylvania to die.” They also vote in big numbers and that is why it is so puzzling that Yeakel and her media handlers did their best to subtly attack Tilghman’s age.
In her constant flow of well financed campaign mail the 59-year-old Yeakel consistently repeated how tired she was of the old ways in Harrisburg, the old style of doing business and how time had passed Tilghman by. Even the way she backed more state support for seniors’ prescription plans was a back handed compliment to Tilghman’s support for more funding. Serving hypocrisy in large doses in her “concession conversation” press conference she called for campaign finance reform. Laws that if reformed, now to her defeated post-election position, would have eliminated the big money from Washington that was her only hope of success.
Tilghman versus Yeakel is one of the ultimate contradictions in a confounding election year. The sad part of the age attack is that the strategy almost worked. It nearly took out of Harrisburg one of the few people there who consistently gives a damn about the whole state not just his district. Part of it is probably vested in the high turn out of young people for Al Gore. In that vote in the 17th district Tilghman was somewhere down the bottom of the ticket and those voters probably don’t even know who he is or what he does so the naïve pulled the Democratic lever. But it’s also a triumph for seniors. Pennsylvania has the second largest elder population in the nation and one of their own took it on the chin because he’s one of them and came out the victor.
Yeakel had issues to challenge but took the low road taking on Tilghman’s age. That her strategy almost worked should be troubling to all of us that age every day. And Yeakel should learn from the experience. Experience says that “almost-made-it” three times it a called a loser. Someday if she decides to run again for something she shouldn’t be surprised if the big time Democratic money thinks that time has passed her by.