Pennsylvania voters need longer memories

A friend sent me the photo that accompanies this column, along with a couple of similar shots.

The politician being hung in effigy, complete with "Return the Pay Raise" signs, is state Sen. DAVID ARGALL, R-Schuylkill. The photos were taken just north of Tamaqua.

Argall has the distinction of being the only current state legislator who is enshrined in my Hall of Fame for the area's most colorful characters. He was inducted this year, along with Democrats Keith McCall and T.J. Rooney, for being the only local legislators who voted for the 2005 illegal payjacking, took the ill-gotten loot and then refused to return it after the scam had been ruled unconstitutional.

I pledged back then that I would keep reminding people about the payjackers, although it hasn't seemed to make a lot of difference. So I was delighted to see from these photos that at least one voter feels the same way.

Argall enjoys another distinction as one of a handful of area legislators who voted to gerrymander half of Northampton County into what had been a Schuylkill County district, massacring the traditional 15th District and the unified Lehigh Valley. The others who still are in office are state Senators PAT BROWNE and BOB MENSCH and state Representatives GARY DAY and JULIE HARHART. State Rep. DOUG REICHLEY went on to become a Lehigh County judge, so he's beyond our reach for a while.

I described them all as traitors when I was ranting and raving about this last December, and nothing has happened to change my mind. Watching Lackawanna countians Matt Cartwright and Laureen Cummings debate the other night in their quest to represent Easton and the rest of eastern Northampton County was incredibly galling.

The prime beneficiary of the screwy new map was grandstanding immigrant basher U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, whom the state's Republican bosses were trying to protect from defeat in the previously competitive 11th District. The gerrymandered result is expected to make him less vulnerable, while also creating a more Republican 15th for incumbent Charlie Dent, whose ridiculous new district extends to the banks of the mighty Susquehanna.

I encouraged readers to post the column on their refrigerators as a reminder for this fall. I also had disparaging words for Republican state Reps. Joe Emrick, Marcia Hahn and Justin Simmons, all of whom demonstrated themselves to be party toadies in preliminary votes that would have restored the 15th District or at least postponed the decision until a better plan emerged.

Hahn, Simmons and Emrick did vote no on final passage. But as I said back then, they deserved no congratulations, since the GOP leadership almost certainly gave them a hall pass because they were in their first full terms and perceived as more vulnerable. Their earlier votes showed their true colors.

What you need to understand about payjackings, gerrymandering and other legislative atrocities is that the leaders of both parties count on our extremely short memories. Voters did exact some vengeance in the wake of the 2005 payjacking, but not nearly enough.

The very idea that a three-time payjacker and relentless perkmeister like McCall could continue winning re-election was incredibly frustrating. He finally retired at age 50 with an estimated $100,000 pension and almost immediately was handed a cushy $145,000 a year job on the state Gaming Commission. I read the other day that they just unveiled his official portrait in the Capitol. Ain't Pennsylvania wonderful?

So whatever you think of the rather barbaric tradition of hanging people in effigy, I love the idea that there are at least some people out there who think their elected officials should be held accountable for their ethical unscrupulousness.

Tim Potts, co-founder of the good government group Democracy Rising PA, says Harrisburg politicians have weighted things so heavily in favor of incumbents that challengers and voters tend to give up. "I think some of that apathy is borne of the very pragmatic understanding that the decks are stacked against citizens in almost every way you think of," he told me.

"That why from the very beginning, we've felt the answer is a constitutional convention. You can't make systemic change piecemeal."

Still, there were some shocking upsets in the wake of the 2005 payjacking, including the ouster — for the first time ever — of a state Supreme Court justice, so it's not impossible.

I strongly support the idea of a constitutional convention and reforms in redistricting, campaign finance and many other areas. But none of those will happen this fall, and my feeling is that every time you mindlessly punch in that incumbent's name or sit an election out in disgust, you're ratifying the behavior of politicians whose prime motivation is their perpetual job protection and enrichment.

So I'll keep voting against them, even if it makes little practical difference. I hope some of you will do the same.

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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