A state-funded private investigator. Implied threats of jail time. Ads stonewalled by the state’s major billboard company. Impending lawsuits. Chris Lilik and Ryan Shafik never imagined they’d face these challenges as they launched Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg office this summer. But when they decided to expose the state legislature’s massive graft, they experienced first hand the dark side of Pennsylvania politics.
As previously detailed by Ralph R. Reiland on this website, Pennsylvania state legislators quietly voted themselves a 16 to 37 percent pay raise at 2 a.m. on July 7 without a debate. This raise came on top of an annual 5.2 percent cost-of-living increase, vehicles, full pension and insurance, “walking around money,” $128 per diem, and no-receipt expense accounts. And by raising salaries through “unvouchered expenses,” the legislators made an end-run around the constitutional mandate that lawmakers not collect their pay hikes until they’ve been reelected.
Voters and editorialists across Pennsylvania were appalled, but the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania (YCOP) mounted the lone major counterattack. After YCOP launched InformedPA.com — complete with “Remember the Pay Raise” bumper stickers, sample billboards, and online donations — money poured in, to the impressive tune of $10,000 over ten days.
Lilik and Shafik targeted with billboard and radio ads three leaders from each party: the Republicans are President Pro Tempore Sen. Robert Jubelirer, Majority Caucus Chairman Sen. Noah Wenger, and Majority Leader Sen. David “Chip” Brightbill; Democrats include Minority Leader Sen. Bob Mellow, House Minority Leader Rep. Bill DeWeese, and House Minority Whip Rep. Mike Veon.
YCOP approached Lamar Outdoor Advertising, Pennsylvania’s major billboard purveyor, with its ads. Lamar officials initially accepted the artwork in late July, Lilik says, only to reject them weeks later as “negative political ads.” Local media suspects that Lamar’s explanation is less than honest. The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported last week that Pennsylvania Lamar executives have given almost $30,000 to state political leaders and their campaign chests, including large amounts to Mellow and House Speaker John Perzel. Lamar’s political action committee, consistently funded by employees, gave $36,000 to state campaigns and PACs. Lamar officials did not return a phone call from TAS Thursday, but told the Times Leader there was no “quid pro quo” at work in the decision to reject the ads.
Lilik and Shafik have found independent local media to run the billboards and radio ads, which should be fully launched later this month, though Plan B comes at a higher cost and effort.
And the Republican establishment appears to be discreetly using strong arms tactics against YCOP, according to Lilik. He said he began receiving phone calls August 15 from Ron Harper Jr., a casual email acquaintance through the Pennsylvania political blogosphere. The Senate Republican Caucus pays Harper $3,000 a month as a “contract researcher” who looks into “people and subjects important to the Senate,” the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal reported last year. According to Lilik, Harper told him that he had a bright future, but he wouldn’t win against Jubelirer. Lilik also said that Harper told him that if he ever were to go to jail, Harper would visit him. “I took that as an implied threat,” Lilik told TAS.
Harper apparently has a history of producing dirt on opponents of the Republican leadership. The Intelligencer Journal reported last week that Harper damaged the reputation of one candidate running against Jubelirer’s man in 2003. He also followed and photographed two other politicians who later resigned their offices. Harper told the Intelligencer Journal that he has not contacted YCOP “on the behalf of anybody” and Long denied assigning him work on YCOP.
Additionally, a source close to the Republican leaders told TAS that they are boasting that friends of Jubelirer are close to suing YCOP to obtain the group’s donor list. Senate leadership is confident that making donors public would dry up funding. Jubelirer is telling rank-and-file membership that they’ll be targeted by YCOP next, but Lilik believes the donor list will be protected since YCOP is a 501(c)(4).
THE REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP’S soft tactic is to portray itself as the real conservative wing of the party — these are the same “conservatives” who found Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s bloated budget too slim for their tastes — and YCOP as an outside fringe group. Sen. Jubelirer’s chief of staff, Mike Long, told the Capitolwire news service that Republicans should instead set their sights on Democrats, “I think it is absurd that a conservative group would target Republican leaders…. It is a stupid mission if one believes in conservative principles and conservatism, because it is the Republican Party that preserves those ideas.” Long was not available for comment this week.
YCOP executive director Ryan Shafik doubts the leadership’s loyalty to conservative principles. “They’re Republicans,” Shafik said Wednesday, “but they’re there for contracts and patronage.”
A man quite familiar with tension between conservatives and the establishment in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, now president of the Club for Growth, told TAS Wednesday that YCOP’s message is hardly an unwarranted attack by outsiders. “It’s extremely offensive to the vast majority of taxpayers,” he said. “I can assure you that a majority of mainstream voters are upset about this pay raise.”
Likewise, Lilik said this issue presents an opportunity for either party. “Whichever party took the lead and opposed the pay hike would be the hero right now,” Lilik said. They’ll have that chance as YCOP’s ads hit Pennsylvania’s air and highways this month and the state legislature returns from recess September 26. The Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania will be greeting them with a rally and, if they raise more money, ads targeting more leadership members.
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