On the eve of Scotland’s vote on independence, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch was on the phone from London to Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto. Said Mr. Murdoch, a man with a legendary political eye:
I think there’s meaning in this, and I think it goes beyond Scotland. There’s a great anti-establishment groundswell which is seen in this vote in Scotland. You’re seeing it here in Britain in the anti-European party, whose one single issue is to get out of Europe. And I think you’re seeing it in France with the polling for Le Pen — I don’t think she’d win, but you know.
And really, you can take the United States and go across to middle America. What do they think of Washington, and Wall Street for that matter? People are really looking for change.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a long way from Scotland. Or France, where Marine Le Pen, the head of the French National Front party, recently scored a stunning upset over the establishment French Socialists of President François Hollande. But here in the heart of what Murdoch refers to as “middle America” — Central Pennsylvania — the state capital’s insider ways are under attack in the very “anti-establishment” groundswell Murdoch was citing. At the very center of this revolt is the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania — aka CAP, which was the subject of a column in this space over two years ago.
In that column was mentioned one Scott Wagner, who is not exactly a favorite with the insiders. So when a state Senate vacancy popped up with a resignation earlier this year, inducing a special election — and entrepreneur Wagner jumped into the race — the establishment went into overdrive to make sure Wagner’s impossible-to-achieve write-in campaign crashed and burned on take off. The shocker? They failed — big time. Stunning the Pennsylvania political world, Wagner was elected. And now? To borrow a title from an old bestseller, the barbarians are inside the gate.
In a state where the only notable election is the governor’s race — Republican incumbent Tom Corbett is up for re-election and there is no U.S. Senate race — Wagner’s presence and CAP’s continued rise is having real world political consequences for the establishment. Like this one, a letter to Republican State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, which was polite, professional, but succinct. What made it explosive was its author — now fellow Republican State Senator Scott Wagner:
Dear Senator Pileggi:
As a professional courtesy, I am writing to you, and allowing you to respond, before sharing this letter with others. The bottom line is this: I have concluded that it is not in the best interest of Pennsylvanians for you to continue as Senate Majority Leader.
“Leader” means to lead a team, provide vision, and formulate strategy. As Senate Majority Leader, your job has been to work with other members of the Senate to facilitate important legislation forthe benefit of all Pennsylvanians. During my short time in the Senate, it has become all too clear that you have used your power to obstruct the legislative process, frustrate the Republican Caucus’ agenda, and prevent Pennsylvania from moving forward.
Unfortunately, I can cite far too many specific examples to support my conclusion. In return for Republican support of the Philadelphia Cigarette Tax, you effectively precluded me and other Republican Senators from having a meaningful opportunity to negotiate with the Democratic Caucus before allowing this piece of legislation on the floor for a vote. Recently you gave Senator Brubaker the run-around to avoid bringing Senate Bill 1336 to the floor for a vote. It is obvious that you are intentionally blocking this bill because you do not want to give Governor Corbett any victories. In addition, since April, I have observed multiple instances when two-thirds or more of our members wanted to see a piece of legislation go to the floor for an up or down vote. You have made it clear to me and other Caucus members that we don’t do up or down votes. You have also worked to avoid a vote on the paycheck protection bill, a matter about which I care deeply.
Tellingly, during my time serving in the Senate since April, neither you nor your staff has approached me directly to ask me my opinion or willingness to vote on any pending legislation.
Only you know your true motives. However, I expect many of your actions can be explained by the company you keep. On Sunday, May 18, 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article titled “How Electricians Union Became Huge Force in PA Elections.” Contained within the article was a chart titled “Local 98’s $100,000 Club.” You are listed ninth on the list having received $175,000, close behind President Obama and seven other Democrats. I believe you have compromised yourself by accepting such a substantial amount of money from Local 98. It has become crystal clear to me that you will not allow any piece of legislation onto the floor for a vote that would in any way be opposed by the public or private sector unions.
By prohibiting important legislation from advancing to a floor for a vote, it is apparent to me that you are the number one obstacle in the Senate.
I want to be clear and express to you openly and directly that I support a change in leadership. Contrary to past and current practices in Harrisburg, I am expressing my opinion in writing to you, rather than engage in back-stabbing and lies.
I would appreciate a response by Friday, October 3rd.
Scott R. Wagner
28th Senate District
York County, PA
Well. To illustrate for those not familiar with the names in the Senate of Pennsylvania, this is the rough equivalent of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul sending a similar note to Mitch McConnell. In response? Pileggi declined public comment.
It should be noted here that there are two precedents for upending a powerful Republican Pennsylvania Senate Leader. A full disclosure note here. Freshly graduated from college in 1973, I was a young aide to state Senator Richard C. Frame. Frame bumped the Pileggi of the day, the old guard Minority Leader Robert D. Fleming, from his post. A mere three years later, in 1976, Frame himself was seen as the old guard, serving in dual positions as Senate minority leader and chairman of the Republican State Committee. He was a powerful guy — yet by 1976 he had lost the minority leader’s post. So the idea of upending Pileggi is nowhere near as crazy an idea as some may think.
CAP Chairman John Kennedy informs that the organization now counts three state senators (including Wagner) and ten state representatives in its ranks. Adds Kennedy:
Our Ben Franklin Project of 15 in the senate and 55 in the House sits at 18% of desired goal. Hopefully come Nov 4 we can win a minimum of 3 more and the BFP hits 22.5% in three election cycles.
CAP recently gathered for a fundraiser. According to Kennedy, there were 200 attendees with another 100 who sent checks but couldn’t attend. The invite advertised a talk by the co-host of the Fox News show The Five, native Pennsylvanian Andrea Tantaros. But in fact the real stars of the evening were Wagner and his fellow CAP-supported legislators. I’ve been to my share — OK way more than my share — of political fundraising dinners. Yet in talking to members of the audience that crowded the West Shore Country Club that evening, there was a striking feature. One does not often attend events at a country club where the audience sounds more like they checked their pitchforks in the cloak room. Talking to these enthusiastic CAP members it was clear that they are extremely frustrated — all right, furious — with the state GOP. They look at their state — and the larger country beyond that — as in serious trouble. The complaints on the national scene from these Pennsylvanians are like those heard nationwide. The spectacular debt, the deliberate dividing of people by class and race, the constant refusal of the national GOP to get its act together and actually take on not just President Obama and the liberal, but the continued me-too response to administration initiatives.
CAP has zeroed in like a laser on state government. And into this mix one learns something about the travails of Republican Governor Corbett. In a Robert Morris University poll published just yesterday at PoliticsPA, Corbett is trailing Democrat Tom Wolf by a full twenty points, with another twenty undecided. These kinds of bad poll numbers have dogged Corbett throughout the campaign. Among other reasons they startle because for the last sixty years Pennsylvania has routinely rotated the governorship, with eight years in for one party and eight years out for the other. Until 1970 the state limited a governor to one four-year term, with voters electing two different governors yet both from the same party back-to-back. After a change in 1970 governors were allowed to run for two terms — and since then every governor from either party has served two terms. If Corbett loses he will be the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor to lose re-election, a stunning rejection.
The answers as to why a Corbett defeat appears possible came thick and fast from the CAP crowd. They ranged from major complaints that the Republican governor has failed to make structural reforms in government to lesser complaints that he had surrounded himself with incompetent staff. As this is written, the governor’s office is involved in a nasty story that revealed while serving as attorney general various of his staff members were using state computers to send and open pornography. Two members of his gubernatorial administration have now resigned.
Which leads to a factor at work in Corbett’s campaign unique to Pennsylvania. As the entire nation knows, Penn State has been at the center of a scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and underage boys. Sandusky has been convicted and is currently serving thirty years minimum with a sixty-year maximum on forty-five counts of abuse. The Corbett problem comes from both sides of this episode. As the state’s attorney general, it was Corbett who opened the investigation. But the investigation didn’t go public until Corbett was already elected governor. The sum of the allegation: Attorney General Corbett wasn’t vigorous enough in pursuing the case, a charge Corbett, methodical lawyer that he is, surely correctly rejected. But as bad as that accusation was, there is the fury also from the other side — that side being the longtime admirers of the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno. The allegation against Paterno was that though he reported Sandusky to university officials as he was required to do, he didn’t go to the police. Translation: Paterno was covering up. As governor, Corbett is automatically a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees. And as the drama about what to do with Paterno unfolded, word leaked that Governor Corbett was demanding of his fellow trustees that JoePa (as he was affectionately called) be fired. He was fired, dying shortly thereafter. Short of demanding that God be given unpaid leave, there is little a Pennsylvania figure of either party could do to further alienate Penn State’s legion of Paterno fans. Fans who now are said to be waiting — with glee — to revenge the legendary late coach by voting against Corbett in November. So goes the thought.
CAP is about state government, and in that context Tom Corbett is seen as no Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor famous for taking the public sector unions head-on and beating them. And unlike his Democrat predecessor Ed Rendell or GOP governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Ohio’s John Kasich, Corbett’s bland personality limits his political popularity. He had two very good debates with Democrat Wolf — essentially a bald and bearded Obama. But time is short, and messaging that is being done now, say Corbett’s critics, should have been done from the beginning of his term. Wolf’s asset is simply that he isn’t Corbett.
Which brings us back to Senator Wagner’s criticism of the Pennsylvania state Senate. What good is having the majority if the Senate Republican Leader is the guy thwarting paycheck protection (putting a halt to public-sector unions taking automatic dues from taxpayer-paid employees) or blocking the privatizing of the state liquor store system — again a union issue. Why is he the Senate Republican Leader in the first place? That the GOP controls both houses of the legislature plus the governorship and still can’t get these very basic structural reforms done is to CAP fundraising what diesel is to one of Allentown’s Mack trucks.
Which brings us back to Rupert Murdoch’s trenchant observation that “there’s a great anti-establishment groundswell” sweeping across the globe, not least in “middle America.” A mere few years ago it was inconceivable that in four years the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania could go from zero in 2010 to having three state senators and ten House members with more to come and money pouring through the door. Yet here they are. It is a telling commentary on the state of Pennsylvania’s two political parties, but particularly the Republicans, that more and more Pennsylvanians are so convinced of the need for structural changes in state government that they are turning to an organization like CAP.
Tom Corbett will win or lose. In either case, the irony is that whoever emerges as the next governor of Pennsylvania, Republican Corbett or Democrat Wolf, the winner is going to find himself dealing with CAP. Or put another way?
The barbarians are inside the gates. And more of them are on the way.