Things heating up in final days of election season

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With 10 to go, intensity picks up; pension efforts fail again

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

timespoliticsunusualWell, we’re getting down to the end of it, just 10 more days and Election 2016 will in the history books.

And make no mistake, it will be one for the history books.

Or maybe, the horror section. And no, don’t ask me to email it to you.

From filing what appear to be criminal charges against a state representative candidate to what would seem to be a tone-deaf endorsement to yet another failure on the pension mess to growing concern about violence at polling places this might be one of the tensest pre-election periods since 1860.

At the top of the ticket — so to speak — is the move by Democrats to file criminal charges against Eric Roe, the Republican candidate in the 158th District, the latest in an ongoing, slow-motion plane crash of an effort by the GOP to replace the retiring State Rep. Chris Ross dating back to 2014.

A couple of things to take away: this is serious and it is clear that the new Democratic leadership in the county is playing for keeps. While the typical play would have been to take the issue to court to get Roe knocked off the ballot — a move courts have increasingly been reluctant to do — we’re seeing a nuclear option, one that could potentially not just knock Roe out of his race but end his political career.

Although county Republicans have dismissed the issue, Democratic insiders point to the case of Vince Rongione — a Delaware County Democrat, who got busted for running for office from a vacant house in the 163rd District, and where he was registered to vote and had his driver’s license — but as a criminal investigation showed, he apparently didn’t really live there.

Rongione ultimately accepted a plea deal — after Delaware County Republicans made the same play that Chester County Democrats made this week. Rongione ended up in the Accelerated Rehabilitation Program, following his plea.

Interestingly, county Democrats seem to have taken their cue from Delaware County Republicans.

When reached Friday to address the case, Roe’s opponent, Susan Rzucidlo, said she wasn’t really directly involved in the effort — saying that the county party was spearheading the efforts and that the investigation and ultimately the courts would decide if it had merit.

For her part, Rzucidlo reiterated her frustration at Roe’s cable TV commercials which she says blatantly lie about her position on Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget and proposed tax increases. County Republican Chair Val DiGiorgio doubled down on those claims late Thursday in comments attacking Rzucidlo.

The problem is — Rzucidlo says pointedly — there’s clear evidence in a published interview with The Daily Local News in April about her opposition to the Wolf tax budget and tax plan. She is able to provide both links to the story and notes even the most basic Google search reveals the truth.

She said she’s always happy to talk issues — but says she is at a loss at why she says DiGiorgio and Roe are just blatantly lying about her record.

Democrats seem ready to pile on in this race, sensing a real opportunity.

Friday, party members reached out to me to take issue with more than $26 million in tax credits since 2009 for film making given to Roe’s mother’s employer, QVC. Mary Beth Roe is a popular host on the shopping network, famous for its celebrity-based costume jewelry and not even slightly famous for film making. It does, however, do about $9 billion a year in business.

Roe, they say, has directly benefitted from this corporate welfare — which totally destroys any argument, Democrats say, that he is a fiscal conservative, rather just someone who gets support and benefits from taxpayer dollars going in their pockets, rather than for schools, roads and policing.

The QVC tax break has been in the crosshairs for a number of years — and it is kind of an embarrassment — but this might be the first time it is being weaponized in a local political campaign.

Worse, according a Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report in 2009 — just as QVC was starting to dine at the public trough — tax breaks like these are a proven net loser for taxpayers — money in the pockets of corporate fat cats and out the pockets of working folks. 

With the state’s ongoing fiscal problems, this is an issue that could raise a lot of eyebrows in the final week of the campaign.

***

Of course, local Republicans have their own axes to grind. While Dan Truitt continues to take serious issue with TV ads from Carolyn Comitta tying him to Donald Trump — Truitt is on the record as saying he supports Libertarian Gary Johnson and that the TV ads are lying about his record —  and now, there’s more angst now over volunteer recruiting at West Chester East High School this week.

Word quickly got around the county on social media that the Comitta campaign had somehow purchased ads — or something to that effect — on the school’s announcements, in violation of school policy.

We touched base with West Chester Area School District Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jim Scanlon, who after sharing with us a desire to see campaign season end (something that seems to have universal agreement), confirmed that a single announcement offering an Election Day volunteering opportunity had been read once, Thursday, during East’s afternoon announcements. Upon hearing it, one of the school’s Vice Principals immediately intervened.

It appears that the notice was sent in, innocently by an East parent — who is working with the Comitta campaign — and approved by a teacher unaware that it was a violation of district policy. Scanlon said he contacted all parties involved to explain the situation and reiterate the district policy, he said.

Truitt, for his part, said through a campaign spokesperson Saturday, that no one from the school district has been in contact with him or his campaign and that Scanlon has not returned his phone calls.

***

Another year, another comprehensive failure by the state legislature to do anything about the continuing pension crisis — now eating up more than 30 cents on the dollar of salaries paid to local school districts, essentially a legislature-driven local real estate tax increase with zero educational benefit.

When the bill crashed and burned late Wednesday when it couldn’t get enough Republican votes to pass, the GOP, of course, immediately blamed Democrats. No, really.

That nothing has been done about the roughly $60 billion in unfunded liabilities — even when the GOP controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion — continues to be the biggest under reported story in the state. GOP legislative candidates have been promising action on this issue since at least 2010 and have repeatedly come up empty. In part because many of the proposals would have done nothing but actually made things worse.

Look, I get that it’s a tough problem. But the utter lack of a grasp of the situation by local legislators (not all, but most) and candidates is mind boggling.

Explaining it simply: imagine you ran up kind of a big balance on your credit card, but decided not to pay it off — just opting for that seductive “minimum payment” for a number of years while buying more stuff. That’s basically what happened from 2001 to 2008 — after a bill that boosted legislators pensions and boosted eligibility looted the pension fund.

Then came the financial crisis and man, things got real.

Legislators and then-Gov. Ed Rendell (who somehow missed out on getting the lead in the TV series Lucifier) cobbled together a sort of, kind of, not really reform package for public pensions in 2010. Which everybody lauded as “pension reform” and, of course, solved exactly nothing.

Since then, we’ve seen various “hey kids, let’s put all the new employees in 401K systems, because, yay! Privatization” plans that largely read like manifestos from the head trauma unit.

Except for one little thing: it’s a financial disaster waiting to happen.

The pension funds have $60 billion in unfunded liabilities — liabilities that under the state constitution cannot be reduced or changed. Switching new employees to a new 401K system stops funding that liability. It’s like saying — “OK, I’m not going to buy anything any more with my credit card, but I’m going to stop making payments, too.”

You know how that would work out.

And yet, we see self-styled “fiscal conservatives” claiming to support switching to a 401K system. That would be conservative in the same way as pouring gas on yourself and running down the street carrying a lit match.

To be honest, there are no fiscal conservatives in the legislature.

Primarily, members fall into one of two categories: “I won’t raise taxes — and want to cut taxes on rich people” and “I’m okay with raising taxes on rich people (and maybe not so rich people).”

A fiscal conservative lines up the spending and revenue to match, develops a long-term plan for finance and maintains discipline. In real life (and we know politics isn’t real life), you cut spending on unneeded items (cough-tax credits for corporations or weasel public sector programs for special interests who write big checks to your campaign-cough) and yes, you raise revenue to match expenses. In the real world, we ask for a raise or find a better job, while holding off on buying that big-screen TV.

So, you might want to ask your legislative candidates about that.

***

I’ve been surprised at how many people have told me they’re afraid of violence at the polls this year. With Donald Trump’s calls to send “observers” or “citizen journalists” to the polls, there is credible reason to believe that some of Trump’s more militant supporters will try to stop people from voting, especially in urban and minority areas.

Depending on your polling location, some of those folks may well be armed, too. While it is prohibited in the commonwealth to carry a concealed weapon in a school or courthouse, there is no specific prohibition on other locations designated as polling places. Interestingly, police officers are prohibited from being within 100 feet of the polling place.

According to the Department of State, anyone brandishing a weapon, though, can be seen as attempting to intimidate voters and can be dealt with by a constable or police.

Under state law, only voters attempting to vote for the first time at a given polling place can be asked for identification. If you’ve ever in your normal polling place before, you can ignore anyone challenging your ID and insist on casting a ballot.

Do not allow anyone to attempt to stop you from voting if you are challenged. Under law, if your status is questioned, you have the right to cast a provisional ballot. Do not allow anyone to deny you this right.

Don’t think it can happen here? Let’s flash back to 2008, the polling place near Lincoln University (thankfully, the poll has been returned to campus) — where African-American voters were hassled and challenged, slowing down an already overwhelmed situation at the poll. I know, I was there. Even now, eight years later, it makes me sick to my stomach that such behavior happened here, and worse, county officials did little at the time to step in and stop it.

So, yeah, it could happen again this year and, with reason, you have to question whether county officials will do much about it.

Should a “citizen journalist” attempt to stop you from voting, take their picture and contact state or federal authorities.

Also, feel free to contact us via call or text — (610) 350-8335 — we will be at polling places around the county all day monitoring the situation. While we can’t enforce the law, we can and will document violations of it and share them with the proper authorities.

A hint: real media people have tags with photo ID that say “Press” or “Media” and their affiliation. Usually, they’re beat up and well used. If something doesn’t look right, challenge it — I’d rather myself or my people be asked a few additional questions to confirm who they are rather than allowing faux journalists to conduct voter intimidation efforts.

Rest assured that federal authorities are ready, too:

U. S. Attorney Zane David Memeger announced this week that AUSA/DEO Tomika N.S. Patterson will be on duty in this District while the polls are open. She can be reached by the public at the following telephone numbers: (215) 861-8200.

Also, the FBI will have special agents available in each field office and resident agency throughout the country to receive allegations of election fraud and other election abuses on election day. The local FBI field office can be reached by the public at (215) 418-4000.

Complaints about possible violations of the federal voting rights laws can be made directly to the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section in Washington, DC by phone at 1-800-253-3931 or (202) 307-2767, by fax at (202) 307-3961, by email to voting.section@usdoj.gov or by complaint form at http://www.justice.gov/crt/complaint/votintake/index.php.

Those same folks should be contacted if you see someone else being harassed at or around a polling place.

So the message is this: show up and cast your vote. Folks will have your back if anything strange happens.   

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