New Castle News


April 4, 2012

Our Opinion: Candidates work to alienate themselves from voters

NEW CASTLE — (Second of two editorials)

The most dramatic local race in the April 24 primary is likely to be for Congress in the 4th District.

Two Democratic congressional incumbents, Jason Altmire and Mark Critz, are facing off against each other for a seat that was crafted in the aftermath of congressional redistricting. Population losses in western Pennsylvania forced the elimination of one of the commonwealth’s congressional districts, and Republicans who controlled the redistricting process in Harrisburg decided to set up this intraparty tussle.

It almost didn’t happen. Altmire came close to being tossed off the ballot over questions about the validity of some of his nominating petitions. In the end, a judge ruled in Altmire’s favor. But the decision hinged upon the residency of one of the petition circulators and could have gone either way.

It’s worth noting that the individual who circulated these petitions was not a volunteer, but rather a paid member of Altmire’s campaign staff. And last year, she worked in Altmire’s congressional office on the public payroll.

This is perfectly legal, but such shifting between government employment and campaign work raises questions. That’s particularly true in light of Pennsylvania’s Bonusgate scandal.

Bonusgate and related wrongdoing dealt largely with the use of government staff to perform campaign work on taxpayer time. While that line wasn’t crossed by Altmire, there’s a lesson here about the dysfunctional nature of modern politics in America.

Ideally, the circulating of petitions and performing of much campaign work would come from volunteers or party loyalists. Instead, an industry has arisen, oftentimes with individual candidates operating free of party systems and funding all campaign activities.

This setup, we believe, reflects a fundamental disconnect between the people and their elected representatives. Too often, candidates find it easier to use financial resources to hire people and to run ads instead of employing more personal outreach efforts.

In turn, campaign donations become the tail that wags the dog. And the sense that money dominates the political process serves to further alienate many citizens.

We assume that scandals such as Bonusgate serve as huge embarrassments for elected officials, even those not implicated. They ought to be eager to implement standards that give their line of work more respect.

There are many ways to do this, ranging from less partisan redistricting methods to tougher ethics rules for office holders and penalties to back them up.

But the response — especially in Harrisburg — is no response at all. Like an addict afraid to get clean, Pennsylvania’s politicians persist in embracing the status quo.

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