Apathy in face of Harrisburg corruption is a mystery

In one sense, the Pennsylvania primary elections last Tuesday were dull.

In another sense, they were astonishing. Astonishing and distressing.

The commonwealth’s General Assembly ranks as one of the nation’s most expensive, corrupt and ineffective legislatures. Yet voters are allowing most of its members to waltz to re-election without breaking a sweat.

Between the two houses, 220 seats are up for election. Yet just four sitting senators and 28 incumbent representatives faced primary challenges. And a whopping 95 incumbents face no challenger in the fall.

It’s not like these guys give great service for good price. They’re the nation’s fourth-highest-paid state legislators, but their most notable product seems to be the conviction for corruption. Just part of the rogues gallery:

Former Speaker of the House John Perzel. Convicted.

Former Speaker Bill DeWeese. Convicted.

State Sen. Jane Orie. Convicted.

Former leader of the Philly delegation Vince Fumo. Convicted.

When not robbing the people blind, these lawmakers often do shoddy work. They’ve botched gas drilling rules, casinos, charter schools, property tax reform. I can’t bear to go on.

Yet we send them back to Harrisburg with hardly a challenge? The apathy this year is odd, given that just six years ago a furor over the midnight pay raise scandal swept dozens out of office.

I saw one cause for hope Tuesday night. Babette Josephs, one of the inert, go-through-the-motions liberals that Philadelphia specializes in sending to the state capitol, lost to a young challenger, Brian Sims. I don’t know Sims, but I do know a number of the young Philadephians who worked hard to elect him.

They’re smart; they love and believe in Philly. They’ve figured how to mix idealism with practical politics. They are, simply, this city’s best hope – and they managed to elect one of their own.

For too long, Philadelphians have ignored Harrisburg – which holds so much sway over the city’s future – to focus on the City Hall sandbox. They let mediocre lawmakers like Josephs treat them like Charlie Brown, falling for the football trick over and over. These pols placate the locals by introducing nice-sounding bills plucked from liberal wish list – bills that they have no intention of passing. But when the real gut check comes, as it did for Josephs on an anti-gerrymandering bill in 2008, they come up small.

On Tuesday, at least one Lilliputian got her comeuppance. And that’s a tiny cause for hope.

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