Throwing the Bums Out
How a small-town businessman sparked an anti-incumbency movement in Pennsylvania--and what it means for national politics.
Russ Diamond, a businessman from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, put up just $182.47 last year to launch PACleanSweep.com, a site dedicated to defeating every single incumbent in the Pennsylvania legislature. It's safe to say his money has been well spent. During the previous decade, no more than five legislators had been voted out of office in any election year. But in this year's May primary, 17 sitting lawmakers, including two Senate leaders with more than five decades of experience between them, were denied the chance to stand for re-election. The 17 defeated lawmakers, plus the 30 members who announced their retirement following the same wave of public outrage, added up to almost a 20 percent turnover for the next legislative session. And there's still the general election in November to come.
The precipitating event happened in the wee hours of the morning on July 7, 2005, when state lawmakers voted themselves pay raises of up to 34 percent. Since that bill was passed, Diamond, a former Libertarian Party candidate for various offices who runs his own sound engineering business, has recruited almost 100 candidates, all of whom signed a pledge that if elected they would not take the pay raise. Diamond, an average-sized man in his early 40s with a thick Central Pennsylvania accent, decided to run as an independent for the governor's mansion.
Diamond's gubernatorial campaign turned out to be a bust, but his larger crusade has been a tremendous success. His efforts show that even if a third party is doomed to failure, a third political brand can work wonders. Diamond's campaign has run candidates in both parties' primaries and as independents by staking out a single-issue identity. With that small initial investment of $182.47, he successfully built a political identity and sold it to working-class Pennsylvania voters. Nationally, Diamond's campaign could serve as a model for others trying to overturn entrenched incumbents and bring fresh faces—and fresh ideas—into politics.
Plans for a salary increase had been circulating in the Harrisburg Capitol long before the summer 2005 vote. In November 2004 Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was stuck in a legislative battle with a Republican legislature that complained he had yet to deliver on a pay raise. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the disagreement culminated in a meeting in Rendell's office, during which Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer—whose wife, a judge, also would have benefited from a pay raise—angrily confronted the governor. Rendell replied that he would not sign a pay raise unless the GOP agreed to spend more on his pet projects. Whether or not it was a quid pro quo, he got at least some of what he asked for: Among other things, the legislature passed emergency spending for mass transit, and the final budget included money to implement environmental bonds.
During budget discussions the following summer, legislative language for the pay raise came in the form of Act 44, which made congressional salaries the benchmark for state lawmakers' salaries. Under the act, state representatives and senators would get a base salary half that paid to U.S. representatives, who currently receive about $165,000 a year. Act 44 also increased pay for judges and other high-level government officials. Because the state constitution says lawmakers may not accept pay increases in the middle of a session, members took their raises in the form of "unvouchered expenses," which don't require receipts.
When Rendell signed the bill into law, he hailed it on the grounds that it took the power to increase salaries out of lawmakers' hands by tying their pay to the salaries earned by members of Congress. He also argued that to keep bringing bright legal minds to the statehouse and the courts, salaries had to be in the range of what law school graduates could earn at private firms in their first year. The defense went over well in urban Philadelphia, but not in the conservative midstate area, where both the cost of living and constituent salaries are much lower. The median household income in Central Pennsylvania is about $42,000, and state legislators had approved salaries for themselves almost twice that in most cases—around $81,000, depending on a lawmaker's leadership role and committee assignments. The job is full-time and the leadership tends to work long nights, but no one is clocking hours during the legislature's 11-week summer recess. The raise made Pennsylvania's General Assembly the second highest-paid legislature in the country, next to California's.
The public outrage was amplified by follow-up stories in the press about the lawmakers' job perks. These benefits included a $600 monthly allowance to lease a car, a plum lifetime health care plan for lawmakers and their spouses, and a $140 per diem payment when the legislature was in session, ostensibly for travel expenses, that members received regardless of how far they lived from Harrisburg.
The fallout was almost immediate. Calls flooded lawmakers' phone lines, and email messages filled reporters' inboxes. Diamond led the initial surge of criticism by launching PACleanSweep.com a few days after the vote. Soon talk radio picked up the issue, and then the opinion pages started chiming in. Tim Potts—co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, a grassroots reform group that opposed the pay hike—says "people were mostly mad about the pay raise, but then they started learning about the other perks and the other ways lawmakers treat taxpayers like walking wallets."
The first sign that local activists' efforts were paying off came in November 2005, when voters turned out state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro—the first time in Pennsylvania's history that a sitting judge had lost a retention vote. Nigro and a fellow justice, Sandra Schultz Newman, were targeted because they tacitly supported the pay legislation, which included a salary increase for them. (Newman managed to win re-election, with 54 percent of the vote.)
A little more than four months after the salary increase was approved, Rendell signed a bill repealing it. Public opposition had been so strong that lawmakers gave in, saying as much in the text of the repeal legislation. With about a year left before the general election, Diamond looked for a way to maintain his movement's momentum.
Diamond's involvement in politics had begun in the previous election cycle, when he ran simultaneously for U.S. Congress and the state legislature as a Libertarian. He garnered less than 4 percent of the vote in the congressional race and about 16 percent in the General Assembly race.
Diamond says he was a registered Republican in the years before his twin campaigns and that he reregistered as a Libertarian for the election, but that he should have been an independent all along. "I have a real hard time with political parties," he says. "With small parties, candidates go out and say things that do not win elections. But then the party is branded by the image of those candidates." Many voters thought he was a member of the "Liberal Party" or knew only that the Libertarian Party supported relaxed drug laws. After 2004, Diamond says, he changed his registration back to Republican, only to switch it to independent this year.
As a politician, Diamond is not exactly smooth and polished. In his 2004 campaigns, he laid out his "Experiences, Lessons and Motivations" on his blog—a 5,700-word manifesto detailing his four divorces, an ex-girlfriend's abortion, a ticket for public drunkenness, and his experience with financial bankruptcy. This year he took the entry down because, he says, he revamped the site's content when he decided to run for governor. All the original entries were removed, along with the Libertarian platform and position papers.
The Internet propelled Diamond's movement, but it also made it hard for him to hide his mistakes. An anonymous site, UnCleanSweep.com, popped up in February 2006 detailing the foibles of Diamond, his group, and its candidates. One entry on the site compares Diamond's expense reports to those of the late Enron executive Ken Lay. Another entry picks out posts from a PACleanSweep candidate's personal blog comparing the Bush administration to Hitler's regime.
After his unsuccessful attempts at attracting attention to his political campaigns, Diamond didn't think
PACleanSweep.com would have much of an impact. But reporters pounced on the story almost immediately, and in the few weeks following the pay raise 40,000 unique visitors checked out his site, 2,600 people subscribed to his listserv, and 13 candidates inspired by his anti-incumbent message said they were ready to run. The candidates came from all walks of life: old and young, doctors and custodians, Democrats and Republicans and independents.
Diamond's goal was simple: Vote every incumbent out of office, regardless of whether he or she had voted for the raise. Even legislators who opposed the raise should have spoken out against it in the months prior to its passage, he argued, instead of letting it pass in the middle of the night without any floor debate. Anyone, he insisted, had to be better than the current incumbents. "Do not, under any circumstance, vote for any incumbent for State Representative or State Senator," the site urged. "If there is no challenger, either don't cast a vote, or better yet, write in someone else. Anyone else. It doesn't matter, just do not vote for an incumbent."
So Diamond started collecting candidates—a total of 97 by the time they announced themselves in late January 2006. PACleanSweep couldn't fund their campaigns; its operating budget hovered around $20,000. But it did advise candidates on strategy. More important, it gave candidates an identity, a brand, with which voters were already familiar. Although candidates were listed under their parties on the ballot, voters knew them as anti–pay raise candidates because almost every news story and editorial endorsement mentioned the issue. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette supported family law attorney and PACleanSweep candidate Lisa Bennington over 28-year incumbent Rep. Frank Pistella in the 21st District's Democratic primary, the editorial cited her stance against the pay raise. When the Washington Observer-Reporter endorsed PACleanSweep candidate Jesse White, also an attorney, in the 46th District's Democratic primary after 26-year incumbent Rep. Victor Lescovitz retired, the paper mentioned White's alliance with PACleanSweep. By May, if you knew there was a primary, you knew which name on the ballot belonged to the PACleanSweep candidate. Or at least you knew which one wasn't the incumbent who had raised his or her own salary.
The candidates were rarely typical politicians. Bill Ogden, a Republican running for state representative in the Pittsburgh area, is a personal trainer who says it's "bull crap" for state legislators to get free health care when 50 percent of their constituents can't afford it. Brian "Bubba" Blasko, an independent running in southwestern Westmoreland County, is a college student and custodial worker at a local school district; he was salutatorian of his high school class—in 2003.
PACleanSweep has its share of politicians with familiar backgrounds, such as lawyers and college professors, but it also endorsed a disabled stay-at-home foster parent and some self-employed painting contractors. As long as the candidates weren't incumbents, they were eligible for the site's support.
Out of the 97 candidates, 35—including 12 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and three members of minor parties—won their primaries. Some of those were unopposed; others ran against each other in the same primary. More pertinent to the cause were the 17 incumbents who were denied reelection, including two in the Senate leadership. Thirteen of the fallen were Republicans, and of the 17 candidates who defeated the incumbents, seven were endorsed by PACleanSweep.
Two of the remaining incumbent slayers drew on the pay raise issue as well. Tire salesman Mike Folmer, a friend of Diamond's, beat Diamond's own state senator, Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, by almost 2 to 1 in the Republican primary, despite having far fewer funds and resources than his opponent. Diamond had considered running for the seat himself if no one else stepped up to challenge Brightbill, but his reputation among Lebanon County Republicans had suffered because of his Libertarian candidacy two years before. So he and Folmer agreed to quietly support each other, though Folmer refrained from applying for a formal PACleanSweep endorsement.
Brightbill's campaign manager, Greg Becker, was surprised by Brightbill's loss. In retrospect, however, he understands: "The legislature did something that the public didn't appreciate." Besides opposing the pay raise, Folmer campaigned as a fiscal conservative, noting that both the state's budget and the state income tax had increased in the previous few years. In any other election year, that might not have mattered. But in the year of the pay raise, voters examined lawmakers' fiscal records more closely.
Meanwhile, in Altoona, Blair County Commissioner John Eichelberger beat Bob Jubelirer, the top Republican in the state Senate, who had come to be known as the architect of the pay raise. Although Eichelberger, like Folmer, was not a PACleanSweep candidate, he benefited from the media coverage that Diamond's candidates received. "I think it was the media's agenda, and they fueled the fire to the public," complains Jen Holman, Jubelirer's campaign manager. "There was discontent around the state fueled by an upset public and the media that was working against any and all incumbents."
The most colorful candidate in Diamond's orbit might be the Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary. Though not officially associated with the PACleanSweep organization, Stilp often shares a platform with Diamond. He was the mastermind behind a 20-foot-high inflatable pink pig that traveled to dozens of locations across the state in the weeks leading up to the primaries. Everywhere the pig went, so did signs and banners reminding passers-by of the name of their local state legislator.
The pink behemoth took multiple trips to Jubelirer's district and even showed up in Brightbill's precinct on Election Day. It provided the perfect photo for every local newspaper.
Victories and Defeats
Diamond has suffered one major defeat: the failure of his gubernatorial campaign. Voters tended not to blame Gov. Rendell for the pay raise he had signed into law, focusing their ire instead on state lawmakers and their tax-funded luxury sedans. Largely as a result, Diamond was unable to gather the 67,000 signatures he needed to get onto the ballot as an independent, falling short by some 29,000 names. "He thought he could run it for two hours a day in his weblog," says Pete DeCoursey, a writer for the Pennsylvania political newsletter Capitolwire. "He just sat in his office and waited for everyone else to carry the banner for him."
While Diamond was mulling a bid for governor, the PACleanSweep board began to suspect he was using the group as a launching pad for his own political career. After Diamond's candidacy was leaked to the press, a handful of board members filed a lawsuit in the Lebanon County Court seeking to dissolve the nonprofit corporation. A week after Diamond missed the deadline to get on the gubernatorial ballot, a judge ruled in their favor. Showing he had learned a thing or two about political spin, Diamond hailed the decision, declaring it meant that PACleanSweep was losing its "corporate bureaucracy."
Diamond's failure to get on the ballot didn't remove the pay raise issue from the gubernatorial race. After the primary, the Republican candidate for governor, former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, took up reform as his campaign buzzword. Swann, who had never run for political office before, initially campaigned with statehouse Republicans. He even endorsed Jubelirer. But after Jubelirer lost in the primary and Swann's poll numbers started sinking, the former football player began singing a new song, saying the state government should be overhauled and the legislature (the country's second largest, after California's) shrunk. The reform theme has helped Swann somewhat by rallying his previously unfocused campaign around a single issue, but Rendell, who has more than $10 million in his war chest, is still considered close to a sure thing for re-election.
The next test for Diamond's candidates will be the general election in November. DeCoursey and other statehouse observers estimate that an additional 15 incumbents will lose re-election in the fall. Activist Stilp predicts an even bigger exodus next year—up to 100 seats—as lawmakers decide to retire because, without the pay raise, they won't see any increase in their pensions if they stick around.
Even if he is only marginally successful, Diamond's plan of attack could be mimicked to elect nonmainstream candidates across the country. The first step, obviously, is to find an issue that resonates with voters. Charlie Cook, editor of the national political newsletter The Cook Political Report, says the only time he's seen national bipartisan anti-incumbency sentiment was the congressional turnover in 1992, fueled by the House Bank and Post Office scandals. But then, Congress isn't the only institution with incumbents.
The second step is to focus on local offices. In statewide races, it's harder to unseat incumbents based on a single issue. But state legislators get much less press coverage than statewide officials. When almost every news story and editorial about a race focuses on a wildly unpopular decision by the legislature, the election becomes a single-issue referendum on the incumbent. "It had a face, these incumbents you could actually see," says Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political analyst G. Terry Madonna. "These bogeymen…you could identify and put a face on them. That always helps."
The third step is to get as much free advertising as possible. Stunts like Diamond's throw-the-bums-out website and Stilp's giant traveling pig attracted a lot of press attention yet stayed on message.
In Pennsylvania, Diamond capitalized on his issue and maximized media coverage for his candidates. His own electoral bid fizzled, but his approach changed his state's political landscape.
And beyond Pennsylvania? Some observers, including Diamond himself, are skeptical that the PACleanSweep movement could ever be copied. Cook notes that a strong anti-incumbency wave has yet to blossom this year on a national scale. But other experts, such as Madonna, do see some anti-incumbency trends in their polling. We've already watched the Iraq war spark a revolt among Connecticut Democrats, bringing disaffected voters out in droves to deny the 18-year incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman his party's nomination. On the right, the conservative Club for Growth has denied several sitting Republicans the GOP's support.
By creating a brand for his candidates and marketing PACleanSweep as a synonym for reform, Diamond offered an alternative to the status quo and launched an army of political novices on a journey to the state Capitol. Don't be surprised if you see more angry organizers following in his footsteps.
Shira Toeplitz is a staff writer for The Hotline, published by National Journal.