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Guilty of Politics

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

It is journalistic heresy to say it, but I think Rep. John Perzel is innocent of the charges brought against him.  Ditto for former state Rep. Stephen Stetler, once head of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, who was indicted as part of the Bonusgate investigation being run by Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Journalists are never, ever supposed to say this kind of stuff.  We take the same attitude towards politicians as cops do towards suspects they arrest:  Even if they aren't guilty of the charges against them, they must be guilty of something --so it all equals out in the end.

The charges against some of the politicians indicted by Corbett in Bonusgate involve true theft of services -- like the mistress Bill DeWeese's chief of staff put in a no-show job. Others involve abuse of legislative employees, as in having them act as personal servants or forcing them against their will to work on a campaign..

But, as near as I can tell from reading the indictments what Perzel and Stetler are accused of  is engaging in political activity while serving as leaders in the legislature.

And that is not a crime.  In fact, their job as legislative leaders is to engage in and practice politics - and that includes political campaigns - to preserve and protect their caucus.

They want to win legislative elections because they want to be in the majority.  And they want to be in the majority because they want to enact their party's agenda.

I am not stating anything that is new.  I am pointing to the standard practice and procedure of legislative politics, probably since Benjamin Franklin served in the Colonial Assembly.

But, let's step back for a minute.

Perzel's crime (officially, it is theft of state money) is in overseeing purchase of a $10 million battery of software and data that provided micro-detailed information on constituents in each House district, including his own.

Stetler is accused of using legislative employees to do opposition research on incumbents and candidates as head of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Again, the official charge is theft of services. When staffers suggested he outsource the duties to private firms, he told them no.  He wanted to continue doing it in-house. (Apparently with no pun intended.)

When it comes to the Perzel database you may ask yourself: What is the difference between a constituent and a voter? The answer: Not much.  In the same way there is much not difference between a campaign mailing - paid out of campaign funds - and a legislator's "Newsletter" paid out of public funds to tell constituents what a great job they are doing.  They are both political - one overtly, one more subtly.

We could lament that these are the kinds of perks that give incumbents an unfair advantage over challengers. I would agree and lament with you. But, there is a difference between unfair and illegal.

The muddled notion behind these particular Corbett indictments is that we should somehow divorce government from politics. That political activity should not occur within the confines of the state Capitol.

I don't think that is possible, nor is it desirable. We do not elect civil servants to govern. We elect politicians. They practice, simultaneously, governance and politics.  In the American system, the two are intertwined - and meant to be.  It is the way democracy works.

It is also the way politics has been practiced for years -not only in legislative branch but in the executive branch as well.

Over the years in Harrisburg, I have known employees on the legislative and the executive branch who were -- no way around it - political operatives. They were paid with taxpayer dollars to engage in politics - for the benefit of their bosses and their respective political parties.

Are you shocked? What do you think Karl Rove did for George Bush all those years? He was a political operative stationed in the White House and paid with taxpayer's funds.  The same is true of David Axelrod, who holds the same position in the Obama White House.

I don't know if a jury will find Perzel and Stetler guilty as charged, but I can suggest a defense strategy for them: Call any of the past six Speakers of the House or President Pro Tem's in the Senate, plus any majority leaders of either caucus, plus any chief of staff to any governor and ask them: Did you ever engage in political activity while on the job? Did you engage in shaping political campaigns? Did you have political conversations with bosses or employees about winning elections or ways to screw the opposition?

If they answer no, please indict them for perjury.

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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