“Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore
‘Tis the wind and nothing more…”–Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, 1845
With prosecutors seeking prison for full time State Representative Tom Druce and the resignation, after a conviction for perjury, of Lackawanna County Representative Frank Serafini, Harrisburg’s elite agonized for weeks about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s investigative series called Public Work, Private Gain. I was stuck in North Carolina last Saturday reading the Fayetteville Observer where Associated Press headlines roared: “Pa. Lawmakers Exempt From Ethics Law.” AP was fronting the story for the following day’s Philadelphia Inquirer and I knew an ill wind was blowing back home.
On the front page for five days Inquirer Harrisburg reporters hammered away at the perks and perceptions of conflict of interest in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate while Associated Press re-capped the story across the nation. And while the series’ accuracy hasn’t been questioned, its premise surely should be, because it was wrong.
In any political city a scandal blows out of the darkness carried on the winds of gossip. A piece here and a piece there until it emerges in the shattering headlines that will get the tongues wagging and newspaper sales jump for a few days. While the suspicions of the Serafini and Druce affairs may have set the stage for this investigation no new mystery has been unraveled in the state capital unless making a living is now unethical.
One of the series’ favorite targets was a veteran House member from Lancaster County, John Barley. Barley is guilty of sludge hauling. It’s a sewer water management plan initiated by the state about 15 years ago to use sludge as fertilizer in rural counties. It’s largely a clean water practice. Let’s just say that while it may be a profitable business not a lot of people jumped into the field. Barley’s family has been successful working it and along the way he’s suggested changes to regulations that would largely encourage more of the practice that is state and federal environmental policy. But for his efforts Barley got tagged by the paper as: “The Sludge King.”
Then there’s Chester County’s Arthur Hershey. According to the paper Hershey is guilty of selling the development rights to his family farm in an open space preservation program. Open space preservation is now the law of the land in Pennsylvania and has been aggressively advocated by the Inquirer for years as it decries suburban growth and the decline of Philadelphia’s population.
Lasts but not least comes the Inquirer’s favorite whipping boy: Philadelphia Senator Vince Fumo who long ago stopped bothering to try to answer the paper’s attacks. Fumo’s guilty of being president of a bank, owning some real estate and sitting on several boards and commissions in Philadelphia. The paper admitted that there was no evidence Fumo ever solicited anything that benefited him personally but the implications were transparent that his success was purely tied to his political acumen.
Twenty years ago about half of the members of the general assembly were full time lawyer/legislators. Today that number has dropped to 18%. When the two houses of the general assembly were chartered in Pennsylvania’s second constitution in 1790 the intention was that the expansion encourage citizen-legislators not just lawyers and bureaucrats. It was clearly understood that farmers, bankers and yes, even sludge haulers would be part of the political process knowing that to do anything they’d have to convince 51% of their colleagues to pass it. In the Inquirer articles the premise is that a full time legislator like Montgomery County’s John Lawless is the solution. Lawless tells the paper: “this is a full time job, with full time pay, and anyone who thinks it isn’t has been here too long.”
That’s a downright scary notion. One sludge hauler, a few farmers, some bankers and the 18% who are lawyers can’t control the general assembly without compromise and a few good fights. On the other hand 253 eternally elected full timers camped in the state capital is an invitation to intractability.
If the alternative to people who make payrolls getting elected while supporting diverse interests that they understand is a full time elected class dedicated to perpetual re-election intending to eradicate the foibles of humanity, the foibles are a better bet. Someday if we lose the willingness of the private sector to participate in electoral politics then we will have state government that’s totally remote and inextricably woven into perpetuating the system. We already have a gridlock like that, its called Congress. The hope is that the voters of the state won’t be influenced by the notion that somehow we can take human interests out of politics and sterilize the process. In its de-humanization we’d be left with only those interested in the vested classes of government for government’s sake not for anybody else’s.
The Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered no mysteries in Harrisburg. There was nothing in last week’s series to still the heart. All it’s done is blown a fowl smelling political wind across the land. But it’s only wind and nothing more and it will blow away. A temporary whiff, soon forgotten.