Subduing the Silly Season

                                                                                          – Tom Tomorrow

Great empires rise and fall, the famous come and go, cities boom and then they languish, but kindness is a constant presence in America.

In that same spirit, I walk around St. Paul and think, ‘This is a great country, and it wasn’t made that way by angry people’.

                              – Garrison Keillor

It’s been hard for me to get a handle on this year’s election cycle. Perhaps it had something to do with the overload of information from multiple media outlets, political blogs, and social media wags, with different slants on what they cover, how they cover it, and what it’s all supposed to mean. 

Now that I’ve had time to do some more reading and listening to what I consider credible sources of objective, reasoned discourse, I’ve tried to arrive at some conclusions about the choices we face in the Sewickley area, in just a few days’ time.

There are other factors affecting the choices we have to make next week, outside of just the candidates or the issues. I’ll try to touch upon those as well. 

First, some general observations – 

1. In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, we’re now bombarded by all manner of information and advertising from all manner of sources, some not affiliated with the candidates at all. 

As has been the prevailing trend with many of these efforts, a lot of this information is negative in nature – don’t support this candidate, for these reasons – instead of trying to make a persuasive argument for those they do support. 

2. There has been too much focus by the media on using fund-raising totals and polls as a means to somehow drill down and prognosticate the outcome of the election, at times ad nauseam.

The media seem to be placing the weight of certainty on these statistics, perhaps in hope that they can keep the viewer or reader riveted, keep the ratings and/or hit numbers up, and possibly insert suspense or drama into a situation where it really isn’t necessary or warranted. 

All of this serves to disillusion and stymie the average voter trying to get credible information from objective sources. Luckily, there are some excellent resources out there to try and make sense of it all: 
  • Project Vote Smart and it’s award-winning candidate/issue tool,VoteEasy, a very accessible way to figure out what a particular candidate for federal office stands for, and how that relates to your opinions as a voter. 
  • FactCheck.Org, one of several sites that specialize in trying to distill truth from falsehoods, and just seem to be getting busier with each campaign season. Even Garry Trudeau has featured this on a recurring basis.
  • Locally, the Pittsburgh City Paper devoted the bulk of last week’s issue to examining elections from a local, state, and national perspective. They did a pretty good job of it. It’s worth reading.
  • The Patch Voter Guide is also a good resource for election information specific to local communities.

Cover art for October 24 edition of Pittsburgh City Paper.
                                                                          – Frank Harris

I’ve tried to take a look at every race involving voters in the 11 municipalities that make up the Quaker Valley School District. These are mostly just observations about the nature of the races and the politics surrounding them.

If I have a particular preference as to a candidate I’ll mention it, but even when trying to focus attention on the attributes of one candidate over the other, it’s sometimes tough to get through the fluff. 

President

A couple of Mondays ago, I asked a neighbor if she was going to watch the final presidential debate. Her disdain, accompanied by “No!”, spelled out what many citizens seem to feel when thinking about presidential politics, and the battle over whose facts are more credible. The time spent debating facts is one of the most glaring symptoms of the disease affecting our political process. 

After the last debate, it became more evident to me that Mitt Romney will mold his views to fit the situation, to the point that he alienates whichever faction of a fractious Republican Party establishment that he isn’t currying favor with at the moment.

In reviewing my writing from the 2008 presidential campaign, I saw John McCain as an independent thinker who became increasingly frustrated as the race went on – I believe in part due to attempts by party operatives to handle him, and also by their saddling him with a under-qualified running mate.

I see the same uncertainty and frustration on the part of Mitt Romney. He’s given me the impression that he was more of a centrist during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts and in the 2008 campaign. In a sparse field of candidates, running the gamut of ideologies across the landscape of a splintered GOP, he’s the most palatable to the faithful, but is also now the most fractured in relationship to who he was.

Since this race started, I’ve wondered if the GOP was really serious about replacing President Obama. If they were, I thought they would marshal some of their best and brightest to take the President on. They didn’t – or couldn’t – and as a result the nominee is someone who passes the smell test with that part of the GOP base that cares, but who doesn’t seem to be able to present a bold plan for improvement that includes any new or innovative ideas. 

Instead, the GOP and its nominee seem more focused on the negative – Defeat Obama, Nobama, Fire Obama, etc . – than they do on moving the country in a direction that hasn’t been tried before. Mr. Romney’s advisors look like a rogue’s gallery of neo-conservatism and rehash, representing for me the failed policies of previous administrations. Robert Bork? Seriously?

Who a President surrounds himself with is at least as important as the man himself. Advantage to President Obama.

If something is troubling me about the President, it is his reticence on civil liberties issues as part of the debates, as well as a mixed record on protecting liberties during his first term. The ACLU has a website dedicated to monitoring constitutional issues related to this election, as well as a report card detailing the stated positions and records of the three most prominent candidates. 

Yes, I said three. Included in the analysis is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, a converted Republican who appears to be gaining popularity among disaffected GOP voters and others, perhaps those aligned with the persistent message of the Tea Party and/or the candidacy of Ron Paul

My son got to vote for President for the first time recently (Colorado, unlike Pennsylvania, has early voting), and stated he was going to vote for Mr. Johnson. Like father, like son on this one, I guess. My first vote for President was in 1980, and went to John Anderson, an independent candidate whose campaign I also volunteered a fair amount of time for.

The GOP establishment, apparently sensing a lot of this discontent, is making a concerted effort to challenge Mr. Johnson’s spot on the ballot in many states. They have largely been unsuccessful, including in Pennsylvania. A Forbes Magazine columnist recently categorized the GOP as “running scared”. 

The national political climate, as well as ideas on which direction the country should go, seems to be at polar opposites in a way not seen since the 1960’s. We should remember our history about perceived third parties and political establishments, perhaps all the way back to 1860, when parties and factions such as the Whigs faded away, and the country re-aligned itself behind groups on either side of another polarizing issue; slavery. 

Back then, the fledgling Republicans, led by their nominee Abraham Lincoln, captured the White House with just under 40 percent of the popular vote in a 4-way race. 

While it will hopefully not take another Civil War to move our country’s political system back toward mutual respect and cooperation, citizens should be mindful of those ideas being thrown around being spun as crucial to our country’s future. This divisiveness is most readily apparent in a U.S. Congress that seems continually gridlocked in obstinate, sometimes juvenile behavior. 

It can be reasonably argued that neither side has a track record to be proud of with regard to performance related to promises made. However, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has continued to point out, it’s better to have slow, incremental growth according to an established plan than to rely on nebulous promises that aren’t backed up by anything substantial. Or, as Mr. Krugman put it, “a slow job is better than a snow job”.  

With all of the above in mind, I believe that the Republicans have presented insufficient evidence that things will improve significantly under a Romney administration – insufficent to deny President Obama a second term. 

Upper Houses – State and Federal

The race for U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Bob Casey and Republican challenger Tom Smith, himself a long-time Democrat until last year, seems polarized on equal levels with the presidential race. The race thus far has seen some significant negative advertising activity, including stark, black and white road signs that state simply CASEY KILLS JOBS.

Getting past the mud and into genuine ideas, I reviewed some of the issues and plans as articulated by each candidate on their websites. Mr. Casey outlined his accomplishments over the last six years, which seem to be more focused on establishing consensus and compromise whenever possible – the bulk of this work has kept him largely out of the public spotlight. His voting record doesn’t reflect a lot of variation from the positions espoused by his party, but Mr. Casey doesn’t sound like someone who will not bend or consider a good idea from the other side of the aisle.

In contrast, Mr. Smith has recently released a 5-point plan to Restore the American Dream. This plan generally follows many GOP talking points, such as the flat tax, repealing Obamacare, drastically reducing financial and environmental regulation, and tort reform.

This appears disingenuous to me – most of these points involve long-term politicking, and don’t speak to the day-to-day business of working as a legislator – something Mr. Casey seems to have focused most of his energies on. The choice here is fairly clear, especially considering that Mr. Casey has received the endorsements of both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review.

In the State Senate, the choice facing Quaker Valley area voters to replace Sen. John Pippy (who just plain up and left in June) will be between incumbent state legislator Matt Smith and Mt. Lebanon businessman D. Raja. There has been a great deal of negativity in this campaign, most of it emanating from the Raja camp, which is ironic as Mr. Raja was the target of some really nasty advertising during the Republican primary.

It should be noted that Mr. Smith is also running unopposed for re-election to his state House seat – a recurring practice in several contests this year, and not something that generates comfort among many citizens fed up with so-called “career politicians”. 

Mr. Raja ran for Allegheny County Executive last year, which kind of made sense to me given his involvement in politics at the municipal level. Some of his ideas then, such as merit hiring, were interesting to hear in Pennsylvania politics. As a result, his candidacy for state office now seems like an uncomfortable stretch just to keep his name relevant in the political scene.

Lower Houses – A Divided Valley

Unlike the Senate seats, voters in the Quaker Valley area see their representation split in both the Pa. and U.S. House of Representatives.

With the census-driven redistricting of the state, and the loss of congressional seats as a result, we not only are losing a good congressman inJason Altmire to a Democratic primary defeat at the hands of current 12th District representative Mark Critz, of Cambria County. Leetsdale, Leet Township, and Edgeworth were also culled from this district and added to the 18th District, currently represented by Tim Murphy of the South Hills.

This made things kind of interesting, at least temporarily, for Mr. Critz’s opponent in the general election, Republican Keith Rothfus. Mr. Rothfus, until recently an Edgeworth resident, found himself residing outside the district he was running for. 

Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, which includes all
Quaker Valley communities except Edgeworth,
Leet Township, and Leetsdale. Credit – http://www.govtrack.us

The new 12th district is a gerrymander comprised of active, growing urban and suburban areas, post-industrial river communities trying to re-invent themselves, and pristine rural regions such as the Laurel Highlands. All of these segments of the district want to increase their vitality, while maintaining their unique character and quality of life.


I’m wondering how Mr. Critz and Mr. Rothfus are each prepared to adequately represent these diverse areas and their unique interests, especially in the wake of Marcellus Shale drilling and the proposed ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. These represent both an opportunity and a threat to many potential constituents.

Mr. Altmire, according to J.D. Prose at the Beaver County Times, has been conspicuously absent from several Critz events. Should Mr. Critz hope to be victorious next week, he’ll need Beaver County’s significantly pro-Altmire constituency. 

Mr. Rothfus, running for the second time for a seat in Congress, has been saying on TV for months that he’s a “regular guy“. Aside from anything either campaign or the media has said to affirm or debunk this, one look at Mr. Rothfus’ house in Edgeworth (I wonder where he is in Sewickley?) says something different to me.

Mr. Rothfus appears to be highly capable as a lawyer and administrator, who espouses the same GOP talking points that Tom Smith is carrying forward. It’s likely that Mr. Rothfus will carry our area, but it’s not clear if that “regular guy” appeal will extend from Johnstown to Plum to Beaver Falls. 

Here in Leetsdale, at the northern fringes of the 18th District (Ice Station Zebra, perhaps?), we know as much about Congressman Murphy and his Democratic opponent Larry Maggi as the time or money either of them has spent campaigning here. A Patch blogger in Upper St. Clair offered me his assessment of Congressman Murphy when I asked him for one:

My impression of Representative Murphy is that he is a disingenuous individual that will adopt the position which he believes is most likely to garner him votes, someone who seeks to have it both ways. He proclaims his Republican credentials as primary elections approach, but plays both sides of the street at other times.

Other assessments of Mr. Murphy’s performance also indicate that he will sometimes cross the aisle to align himself with positions outside lockstep GOP ideology. Sounds pretty good so far. 

Mr. Maggi doesn’t seem to espouse a great many substantive ideas on improving things in Washington, although he has an extensive background in local and county government in Washington County. Perhaps he needs a little more seasoning there. 

Before getting into the two State Legislature contests in our area, I think it’s important to share the observations of Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, whose district includes parts of Allegheny, Beaver, and Washington counties.

Rep. White’s recent essay Profiles in Cowardice describes a system of operations that permits legislators to engage in political chicanery to the point of impeding the ability of the legislature to do it’s job and be truly accountable to constituents.

With that in mind, most of the local area is in the 44th District, represented by Republican incumbent Mark Mustio. Mr. Mustio ran unopposed in the primary election, a situation he used to his advantage to also run in the GOP primary for the 37th District State Senate seat, opposing D. Raja. 

That campaign was peppered with negative ads by both candidates. According to the Tribune-Review, these ads included the following:

Mustio’s campaign for the state Senate seat mailed thousands of flyers printed with the messages, “D. Raja has outsourced many of our jobs to India,” and, “Why would we ever vote for Raja to represent us?” next to pictures of India’s flag and a map of the country. Another ad features a photo of Raja and his full first name, Dakshinamurthy.

Many republicans cried foul at what they perceived as a racist tone in the ads. Even as Mr. Mustio was disavowing and pulling them, the Post-Gazette took the unusual step of withdrawing its endorsement of Mr. Mustio and giving it instead to Mr. Raja, who won the primary handily.

The P-G referenced this 2 weeks ago, calling the episode a character issue while endorsing Mr. Mustio’s Democratic opponent, Mark Scappe. Mr. Scappe is a former Moon Township school board member who lost re-election over the controversial decision to build a new high school there. He remains resolute in this decision, and he has apparently mustered considerable support among voters in Moon and elsewhere. 

Could this be a sign that negative campaigning has consequences? This corner certainly hopes so, especially when considering the stuff that has hit our mailbox from the candidates facing off for the 16th District race, which includes Leet Township and Bell Acres along with Leetsdale. 

The incumbent Democrat, Rob Matzie of Ambridge, is being challenged by republican Kathleen Coder. Mr. Matzie tends to keep a low profile, and according to some sources has displayed the ability to cross the aisle to attempt compromise on certain issues. He sort of reminds me of Bob Casey in the way he conducts himself. 

Ms. Coder is a council member in Bellevue, at the southern end of the district. Aside from her campaign activities, some recent publicity came from her opposition to a controversial ordinance banning grilling within 5 feet of a residence. This ordinance spawned a protest in front of the borough building that drew much public and media attention.

Most recently reported is that Ms. Coder and her husband are paying off a$42,500 tax lien on their home. The federal tax debt relates to Ms. Coder’s primary business, a leadership development consulting firm

Foxes Watching The Henhouse

The other statewide offices being contested include the race for State Treasurer, primarily between incumbent Democrat Rob McCord and Republican Diana Irey Vaughan, a long-term Washington County Commissioner.

I’ve utilized the services of Mr. McCord’s office – the unclaimed property website – and found the information easy to understand, the process easy to navigate. Mr. McCord is a Harvard graduate with an MBA from Wharton, and by most accounts has administered his duties competently thus far. 

The major party candidates for the office of Attorney General have waged a campaign fraught with multiple negative outbursts amid controversial advertising by organizations sometimes not affiliated with either campaign. In addition, other controversies have been woven into the race, such as the Jerry Sandusky caseMarcellus Shale drilling, and questionable financial dealings associated with the Milton Hershey School.

The Sandusky connection arises from Governor Tom Corbett’s tenure as Attorney General, and any alleged delay in opening an investigation of Mr. Sandusky once allegations of his misconduct first began to surface. This perhaps speaks to the political nature of the office, as it has been used by many (including Mr. Corbett) as a stepping-stone to higher positions. 

That this can be reasonably said about an office with significant enforcement and watchdog responsibilities is perhaps an example of the problems inherent in state government. A vote for Ms. Kane may be one way of sending a message to the Corbett administration and Pennsylvania politics that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

The same can be said of the race for Auditor General, which pits two sitting members of the Legislature who are both pulling a Matt Smith-type “career politician” maneuver by running unopposed for re-election while seeking this position. Democrat Eugene DePasquale (yes, he’s related to Jeep) is facing off against Republican John Maher, who is campaigning more on his experience as an accountant than as a politician. Patch’s Oren Speigler also had some definitive thoughts about Mr. Maher as well. 

Either way, it looks as if there is too much of a political component to the position and the race, especially when both candidates really don’t have anything to lose. 

Conclusion

As the quotation at the beginning of this post indicates, I believe we are at our best in this country when we are resolute without being angry or fearful. We can display kindness without being perceived as weak and vulnerable.

When anger and fear become prevalent in our political discourse, to me that is an indication of uncertainty or subterfuge on the part of those trying to drum up that anger and/or fear. 

Two words being thrown around way too loosely these days – fascism and socialism – got me thinking about what can happen when people get too wrapped up in symbols and sound bites, instead of trying to think and evaluate things for themselves.

This drove me to get a couple of books from the library that speculate, in fictional terms, on this concept. Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) are worth adding to your reading list. 

Abraham Lincoln, who along with Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt make up the lion’s share of GOP presidents worth their salt, is making a comeback as well. Check out Steven Speilberg’s new film, as well as a definite departure from historical accuracy that makes for riveting entertainment. 

As Election Day approaches, I hope that everyone who can vote will make it a priority to participate. Luckily, attempts to suppress the vote, disguised as security theater, will not be in force in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Best wishes for a hopeful month ahead. 

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