“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Fascinating State Tea Party Story

This weekend's edition of the Wall Street Journal carried a sobering editorial regarding Pennsylvania's state-level Tea Party movement. It's a story about which I was completely unaware until now.

According to the Journal piece, written by Jerry Bowyer, a Pennsylvanian who covers the state's lawmakers for a living,

"The Keystone State's tea party movement actually began several years ago- on July 7, 2005, at 2a.m. That's when our state legislature rammed through a pay hike for its members and the state's judiciary. Because the state's constitution prohibits legislators from collecting pay increases in the same year they were passed, legislative leaders called the pay hike a reimbursement for expenses that required no documentation or simply "unvouchered expenses.

The reaction was both explosive and immediate. Editorial pages and radio show hosts denounced the pay hike while voters took to the streets of their capital city with placards and bullhorns and giant inflatable pigs. The movement became broadly known as Operation Clean Sweep.

But rather than wait for an electoral thumping, legislators fought back in ways that made voters more upset. In what came to be called BonusGate, some legislators under taxpayer fire allegedly gave their staffers bonuses with state money and time off to work for their political campaigns. When all the tallying was over, about $3.6 million had been given to incumbent legislative staffers, 80% of whom had "volunteered" for their bosses' campaigns.

After the 2006 election, 17 legislators were swept out of office. The powerful president of the state Senate, Robert Jubilirer, was replaced by a mild-mannered rural county commissioner. The second most powerful man in the Senate, Chip Brightbill, was ousted by a tire salesman.

State Attorney General Republican Tom Corbett followed up with a slew of indictments related to BonusGate, which have been slowly working their way through the courts. In 2008, Democratic state House member Frank LaGrotta pleaded guilty to two conflict-of-interest charges for hiring members of his family for no-show state jobs. Others fought the charges. Last month, Mike Veon, the second most powerful Democrat in the state House (who lost his seat in 2006) was convicted of using state funds to illegally give staffers bonuses to work on his re-election campaign.

Over the past year, Operation Clean Sweep rebranded itself into a tea party movement. But it's still the same people—mostly veterans, stay-at-home moms, and others who were never active in politics before—with the same aim of electing officials who are better acquainted with voter concerns than the trappings of power. "

This account certainly paints a very different picture of 'Tea Party' activists than one reads in liberal or Democratic accounts, and in the video media, doesn't it?

Rather than being a far-right fringe of bigots without any specific issues, these Pennsylvanians were justly angry at the manipulation and rough handling of the state's constitution by its majority legislative party. Funny that I haven't heard Ed Rendell talk about any of this.

If anything, I think it illustrates how, in our current era, branding anti-cronyism, self-interested dealing by legislators and administrations makes a lot of sense. Using the Tea Party brand clearly identifies grass roots movements as anti-corruption and anti-spending without good reasons.

As Bowyer concludes in his editorial,

"Far from being a fringe movement, the evidence clearly indicates that the tea party movement has grown to become a mature political actor capable of influencing the course of Pennsylvania politics.

Mr. Specter faces not only Mr. Toomey but also Rep. Joe Sestak, who is challenging the senator in next month's Democratic primary. Over the past several months, there have been several barbs traded among these men. But there is one thing they all agree on: The tea party movement is a serious political force. Mr. Specter points to his willingness to personally face tea party questioners as proof that he has the toughness to win a general election fight. Mr. Sestak, in a recent debate with Mr. Toomey, went out of his way to say the tea party movement deserves respect. And Mr. Toomey has called the movement a "check on the otherwise unchecked and unlimited power of one party."

All three men, it seems, have come to understand that the tea parties are a mainstream political phenomenon capable of providing the margin of victory in close elections."

How appropriate of Toomey to give the activists their due as exercising their rights to assemble and speak about their government's actions. That they are, in fact, a credible and effective source of checks on either party's exercise and abuse of power.

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