Election Earthquake Rattles Pennsylvania Legislature

Published July 1, 2006

“Earthquake” is one of the words politicians are using to describe the ouster of numerous incumbent lawmakers in the May primary elections by voters who were angered and outraged over tax hikes, spending increases, and boosts in legislative pay.

The epicenter of this electoral earthquake was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where at least 47 lawmakers will leave office.

Senate Leaders Ousted

The latest evidence of the depth of anger in Pennsylvania’s still-seething electorate came on May 16, when 17 incumbents lost primary election challenges. The losers included Republican Senate president pro tempore Robert Jubelirer, Senate majority leader David Brightbill, and a long-term incumbent, Republican state Rep. Bob Allen, all three of whom had voted for at least three of the biggest tax increases in Pennsylvania history.

Before the May primary election, 30 other incumbents had announced they would not seek reelection, most because they believed they would lose, according to Pennsylvania political observers.

Jubelirer and Brightbill became the first incumbents in major leadership positions to lose a primary election in Pennsylvania in more than 40 years.

Jubelirer described the outcome as an “earthquake” when he spoke with reporters after the results came in. The Wall Street Journal‘s John Fund called the election a “bloodbath” in a column he wrote shortly thereafter.

GOP Incumbents Pay Price

Voters in Pennsylvania have been outraged since last year, when lawmakers, with the aid of state Supreme Court justices, devised a scheme for themselves and more than 1,000 judges to get around prohibitions in the state constitution against receiving midterm pay raises. In the House, at least 11 Republican and 4 Democrat incumbents lost their primary elections. All but two had voted for the pay raise. The two who did not vote for the pay raise accepted it.

Pat Toomey, a former Republican congressman and senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, helped organize fundraising and informational efforts aimed at ousting “Republicans who apparently did not believe in Republican Party principles.” He pledged to continue raising money for the primary election winners for the general election in November.

RINOs Targeted

“This primary election clearly showed it was open season on RINOs [Republicans in Name Only],” Toomey said, “and they got taken out. It’s important for people to understand this was not primarily about guys who had voted themselves obscene mid-term pay raises. That was catalyzing and energizing, but blood was spilled because rank-and-file Republicans were disgusted. They were disgusted by the abandonment of limited government, routine support for higher taxes, and bloated spending. The pay raise was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Several groups had been working to do away with the status quo in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Club for Growth, Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Clean Sweep all worked to remove incumbents.

Ryan Shafik, spokesman for Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, agreed with Toomey that the pay raise “was a catalyst. It was a huge issue for many of the voters that unearthed a lot of the corruption, and the perks, and the way that legislators had gotten away with spending people’s money.”

Pledge Helped Some

Shafik pointed out that anti-taxpayer votes cast by elected officials made the difference in some prominent cases. But he also said the pay raise was not the only factor, as a number of legislators who voted for it won their primary elections. A pledge not to increase taxes seemed important in some cases, Shafik said. Mike Folmer, who defeated Brightbill with 66 percent of the vote, and John Eichelberger, who defeated Jubelirer with 51 percent of the vote, had both signed Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge against raising taxes.

Brightbill and Jubelirer never signed the pledge and voted for the four largest tax increases in the history of Pennsylvania, nearly every budget, and last year’s shady pay-raise scheme.

“These two leaders were the ones that conservative groups targeted specifically,” Shafik said. “We were outspent 15 to one, but it was their 30-year liberal records that ended up killing them.”

Liberals Also Targeted Lawmakers

Toomey and Shafik view the primary election results from a conservative perspective. Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, a statewide reform group, has a liberal perspective yet largely agrees with them.

“We could have 60 new lawmakers in the legislature this January,” said Potts, who expects a number of incumbents in both major political parties who survived the primary election to lose in the general election.

“The dust won’t settle on this for a while,” Potts said. “The potential for even more dramatic change is definitely ripe, because people have regained the understanding they own the government. There are 253 legislators and 12.4 million of us in this state. Probably the most remarkable thing is that we’ve been able to cross ideology to keep the focus on democracy. People who used to vilify each other in the press are working shoulder to shoulder to effect reforms.”

The first sign of the upheaval in Pennsylvania came just a few months after lawmakers approved “non-vouchered expenses” for themselves and state judges. Lawmakers and judges could submit expense vouchers worth thousands of dollars with no documentation–a maneuver that significantly boosted their pay without a formal vote to do so.

Court Justice Thrown Out

Last November voters struck back by voting out of office Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, a Democrat who had worked with lawmakers to arrange the pay-raise deal. He became the first Supreme Court justice denied retention in the history of the commonwealth.

Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, a Republican, was up for retention with Nigro and barely hung on. Her job was saved when former Gov. Tom Ridge and other Republican powerbrokers in Pennsylvania came out with a barrage of last-minute endorsements and advertisements for her.

Barely one week after the ouster of Justice Nigro and the near-ouster of Justice Newman, lawmakers repealed the non-vouchered expenses scheme.

Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who opposed the pay raise scheme and is known for his conservative fiscal views, said the primary election results “are a major upset that will, in the end, benefit taxpayers of Pennsylvania. It will definitely move the Senate in a more conservative direction.

“The House is a different situation,” Metcalfe continued. “Some of the members who were defeated were from conservative districts and were for the most part conservative. But in general there should be a more conservative shift, just not as substantial as the shift in the Senate.”

Sandra Fabry ([email protected]) is state government affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform. Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.

For more information …

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge and further information are available at: http://www.atr.org/pledge/state/index.html.