Friday, August 1, 2008

The Seismic Pennsylvania Primary

On May 16, 2006 the registered party voters of Pennsylvania gave a dramatic demonstration of how the party primary enables them to give force to their displeasure, at the least, or anger, at the most, at the performance and culture of their legislators. The Republicans unseated State Senator Robert C. Jubilirer, the longest-serving president pro tempore in Pennsylvania history, and his Majority Leader David J. Brightbill, and 11 sitting members of the House of Representatives. The Democrats ousted four incumbent members of the House. It was, as the chastened Jubilirer said, “a dramatic earthquake.” The headline of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story called it “a seismic shift.” The Inquirer asked, “What are the aftershocks?” and answered “Many surviving incumbents will have tough races in the general election, and the long-stalled legislative reform agenda might well be infused with new life.” Those angry registered party voters had a second shot at incumbents in the general election; independent voters, who had no vote in the party primaries, will had the one, underscoring Kent’s teaching.

The event which surely influenced this pervasive and perdurable anger actually occurred in July 2005. Both houses, after midnight and with virtually no debate, voted themselves – and judges – substantial pay-raises: they then made an end-run around a Constitutional prohibition postponing effectiveness until after the session, by voting themselves immediate unvouchered travel allowances in the amount of the raises. The voter outcry was instantaneous and furious. The lawmakers, taken aback, after much backing and filling, repealed the raises, but the damage had already been done. Some activists formed PACleanSweep to recruit candidates to challenge incumbents in both the Republican and Democratic 2006 primaries; seven that they backed were among the victors on May 16th. Those seven could well have been the nonpartisan Republican and nonpartisan Democrats that A Modest Proposal calls for. It appears, though, that most of the havoc was wreaked by party faithful.

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