Saturday, June 03, 2006

Inquirer's Citizen of the Year

The Inquirer's second annual Citizen of the Year award honors three people who shook democracy to its core in Pennsylvania in 2005.

The three men who share the award led a popular uprising to restore accountability in state government.

More than any other citizen-activists, these three orchestrated the grassroots revolt that forced state lawmakers to repeal their sleazy pay raise and toppled a Supreme Court justice.

In so doing, they gave hope to those who dream of smarter, cleaner government - in Harrisburg and throughout the state.

The second annual Inquirer Citizen of the Year award goes to Timothy Potts, Russell Diamond and Eugene Stilp.

On July 7, in a vote taken literally in the dead of night, around 2 a.m., state legislators rammed through hefty pay raises for themselves and other state officials, including judges.

The Harrisburg crowd thought it knew how this story would play out. A brief burst of public anger would flare but fade from memory by the time lawmakers went back to work in September.

As for November 2006, when lawmakers would next ask voters to rehire them, the pay raise vote would barely be remembered. Or so the conventional wisdom went.

And with good reason. Politicians in Harrisburg had been doing business this way for a long time, without consequences.

Nothing seemed to raise voters' ire to job-threatening levels, not a spate of felony convictions for sitting members, not news stories about ghost voting or fancy car leases, not endless stalemate on major issues.

In 2004, for example, 193 House members ran for reelection; only two lost. About half had no opposition.

Many citizens, it seemed, had adopted a fatalistic view of state government.

They were accustomed to the legislature doing much of its work in relative secrecy, approving important legislation such as the slots gaming law in late-night sessions with little or no public debate.

Many Pennsylvanians felt powerless.The lawmakers who slipped themselves these nice raises were counting on that apathy.

But they hadn't counted on Potts, Diamond, Stilp and others mounting a furious campaign against arrogant business-as-usual in the state Capitol.

"Their efforts in keeping the pay raise in the public eye played a large part in having it repealed," said Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware).

These three men receive this award on behalf of the many advocates for good government who rose up in 2005. Potts, Stilp and Diamond simply stood out in leading the charge.

"They caught a moment in the state's history," said G. Terry Madonna, a prominent political analyst. "Their role was hugely significant. But they came to it from different routes and different roots."

He's right. Potts, Stilp and Diamond have been trying independently to reform state government for years, but with divergent policy goals. The pay raise brought them together in a way that no other issue had, or could.

Potts, 56, of Carlisle, had for years directed the Pennsylvania School Reform Network. His main aim was to fix the state's lousy, inequitable system for paying for public education.

In 2004, frustrated by how the bad habits of Harrisburg politics stymied policy reform, Potts cofounded a group called Democracy Rising PA., a coalition of five nonprofit organizations looking to foster integrity in state government.

"A lot of my zeal comes from my conviction that the legislature is not serving the people," Potts said.

Potts arrived at that conviction after spending a long time in the belly of the beast. He was as a low-level state bureaucrat in the 1970s.

He became a speechwriter for Cabinet secretaries before serving as press secretary in the mid-1990s to powerful state Rep. William DeWeese (D., Fayette).

"We had a lot of difficulties with my reformist tendencies and his back-slapping ways," Potts said. "He'd look at me and say, 'This is not Plato's Republic.' I'd say, 'It doesn't have to be Dante's Inferno, either.' "

The two men became adversaries on the pay raise issue, with DeWeese being one of the last House members to defend the hikes.

Stilp, 55, of Middle Paxton Township, is a consultant in emergency communications who is a volunteer firefighter and a certified EMT. He considers politics "the art of making people indebted to you."

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 turned Stilp into an activist with a flair for the theatrical.

He helped lead a rally in Washington against nuclear power and discovered a talent for designing political props.

During the pay raise revolt, he revived a 25-foot-high inflatable pink pig - used in earlier protests against corporate greed - to highlight a rally in Harrisburg in September.

"It's about timing, and the right prop," Stilp said of his specialty. "I really do enjoy that: How do you boil it down to a few words to explain and educate? You're an entertainer, performer and educator."

Diamond, 42, of Annville, owns a firm that manufactures compact discs and DVDs.

In 2004, Diamond ran for the statehouse and Congress simultaneously on the Libertarian ticket and was, as he puts it, "soundly defeated."

Within days of the legislature approving the pay raise, Diamond created a Web site called Operation Clean Sweep, devoted to defeating all incumbents.

In two days, he received about 2,300 e-mail."Then I knew I was riding a lightning bolt," Diamond said.

At the same time, Stilp was preparing a lawsuit to stop the pay raise.

He had done the same thing when the legislature approved a pay raise in 1995, to no avail. But, this time, he said, angry citizens had the Internet to rouse and connect them.

"The Internet is the best thing to happen to democracy since the printing press," Potts agreed. "It's just so cool. It's political wildfire."

Said Diamond: "It wouldn't have been possible without the Internet. That is the most distinct advantage the citizens have over the politicians."

The public's anger was stoked even hotter by news reports that, although the pay raise would not take effect until late 2006, many lawmakers were taking the money right away in the form of "unvouchered expenses."

The state Supreme Court had ruled the practice legal several years earlier.

As the protests grew, Potts, Stilp and Diamond began contacting each other to stay abreast of developments. Soon they were coordinating efforts weekly.

"We were all standing around a big, rotten tree, swinging axes," Diamond said. "We wanted to make sure we weren't hitting each other."

As the repeal movement gained momentum, Potts slowly convinced his comrades to pursue another goal: defeating the retention election bids of Supreme Court Justices Russell Nigro and Sandra Schultz Newman.

His reasoning: The state Supreme Court had issued a series of rulings that enabled lawmakers' shady habits, such as substituting one very different bill for another at the last minute.

After four months of barbed protest, the legislature voted to repeal the pay raise on Nov. 2, but left itself a sneaky out.

Less than one week later, voters stunningly defeated Nigro, the first time a high court judge seeking retention had lost.

Another week later, the legislature repealed the raise for real.

Here's a statistic that speaks to how much the Internet has changed political activism: Potts says he spent all of $32.16 on the "vote-no" campaign for the retention elections.

Potts, Stilp and Diamond are swift to credit fellow good-government advocates, including Barry Kauffman of Common Cause and Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation, and above all the folks at the grass roots."

The credit really goes to all those Pennsylvanians out there who understand what's wrong," Diamond said. "Without them, I'd be just some dude with a Web site."

The three honorees say their effort in 2005 was only the beginning of a larger movement to bring integrity and transparency to the legislature.

Diamond has recruited about 80 candidates to run for the statehouse next year. Potts vows to make 2006 "the year of integrity" with an agenda to restore voters' trust in government.

He'd like to see a constitutional convention that would rewrite the state's charter to forbid many of the legislature's worst habits - including crazed lame-duck sessions - and enshrine good ethics as a matter of law, not whim."

We're going to see more competition [on the ballot] in 2006," Madonna said. "And there is now a serious reform agenda. They will add a dimension to the elections that we have not seen in 30 to 40 years. And these three guys were at the center of it."

Said Potts: "I'll look back at this year [2005] as one that made me more hopeful than any year I can think of. We saw people stand up and say, 'I want my government back.' "

Standing right in front were three guys named Potts, Stilp and Diamond - The Inquirer's Citizens of the Year.


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