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In Defense of Politics

What do Tom Wolf, Kathleen Kane and Donald Trump have in common? None are practitioners of the art of politics. Enough with on-the-job trainees

What do Tom Wolf, Kathleen Kane and Donald Trump have in common? None are practitioners of the art of politics. Enough with on-the-job trainees

There was a telling exchange during one of the debates in the 2014 congressional election for the seat previously held by Allyson Schwartz. On the stage, candidates Marjorie Margolies, Daylin Leach, Val Arkoosh, and eventual winner Brendan Boyle were going mano-a-mano when Leach, the most quick-witted of the bunch, zeroed in on Arkoosh, a physician who was a political neophyte.

“You know, Val brags about not being a politician,” State Senator Leach said. “I understand that. When you’re sick, it’s not like you’d want to go to a professional surgeon. You’d much rather go to someone who dabbles in medicine from time to time.”

I’ve lately been thinking of Leach’s clever putdown—he called it “snarky” while chuckling about it when I called him last week. Every time Donald Trump bloviates or Ben Carson snoozes or Kathleen Kane sneers or Tom Wolf monotones across my TV screen, it reminds me that this trend of electing non-politicians to elective office might not be working out too good. Governing actually requires a discrete set of political skills, and it just may be—as we’re finding out—that success in one field doesn’t necessarily correlate to success in the public sphere.

We’ve been loud and clear here at The Citizen that we need to widen the net of who participates in politics. And there is no doubt that we need new candidates bringing fresh ideas to public life. But that doesn’t mean that offices like Attorney General, Governor, President or, for that matter, Mayor ought to be entry-level positions.

That lesson would seem to be omnipresent, from California, where the charisma of Ah-nold wasn’t enough to actually get things done and it fell to a longtime professional politician like Jerry Brown to move the state forward, to Minnesota, where former professional wrestler turned governor Jesse Ventura could entertain but couldn’t build coalitions and forge compromise.

Every time Donald Trump bloviates or Ben Carson snoozes or Kathleen Kane sneers or Tom Wolf monotones across my TV screen, it reminds me that this trend of electing non-politicians to elective office might not be working out too good.

Leach, a loud progressive voice in the General Assembly since 2002, has learned this the hard way, and he sees evidence of it all around.

“Have you seen Ben Carson in those debates? He looks utterly clueless,” Leach says. “Not exactly the trait you want in someone making existential decisions for the country. In no other profession would the least experienced person be taken so seriously. If I get into a rocket ship without any training as an astronaut and attempt to pilot the thing, I won’t know what levers to push and it’s going to be a catastrophe. Well, when I first got to Harrisburg, I didn’t know what levers to push. And I made some really stupid mistakes.”

Like the time in his first week, during a Judiciary Committee meeting, that Leach raised his hand and offered a critique of the chairman’s proposed legislation. “I thought I was the smartest guy in the room,” he recalls now, wincing. It took an older colleague to nudge him awake: “You do realize that, if you ever want to run a bill out of committee, he’s the guy who runs it for you, right?”

Even then, the lesson didn’t set in. It took years for Leach to learn the ins and outs of how to get stuff done. The working of relationships, the intricacies of vote-counting, the phrasing of things so that, as he puts it, you bring people with you, rather than turning them off. “It’s about learning to know what to ask for,” Leach says. “Maybe you know a colleague can’t support your legislation, owing to circumstances in his district or party. But maybe you can ask him to help on a procedural vote. Or you can ask him to refrain from attacking you.”

Making that ask, however, usually requires some level of transactional politics. Do this for me and I’ll do that for you. It’s the sausage-making that so turns off high-minded reformers like, frankly, me. But the ends justify the means when it’s for a good cause. That’s what George Washington Plunkitt was talking about in the 1905 classic Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, a treatise on the dark art of politics that still resonates today. Plunkitt, a political apparatchik of an infamous machine, introduced the concept of “honest graft,” the notion that politicians ought to openly line their constituents’ pockets instead of secretly lining their own. It was called pork-barrel spending and later became known as “earmarks.” Honest graft was, and remains, distastefully transactional—but it can actually make people’s lives better.

Today, in Pennsylvania, we might have a budget—and thus nonprofits that service at-risk children would no longer be wondering how to make payroll—if non-politician Wolf had practiced a little honest graft. The legislature against whom he’s engaged in an epic stare down, after all, is roughly comprised of one-third ideological true believers, one-third centrist pragmatists, and one-third whose votes are for sale if the price is right.  

The latter group, needless to say, can be swayed. In past years, astute Governors have used Walking Around Money—millions in discretionary funding for pet projects buried in the budgets of executive branch agencies, commonly called WAMs—to get votes. But non-politician Tom Corbett, pointing out that WAMs totaled as much as $400 million annually, banned the practice. (I’m told that, privately, he has conceded that the move doomed a good part of his legislative agenda from getting through.) Wolf supported the reform, so now WAMs aren’t in his tool box.

Honest graft was, and remains, distastefully transactional—but it can actually make people’s lives better. Today, in Pennsylvania, we might have a budget—and thus nonprofits that service at-risk children would no longer be wondering how to make payroll—if non-politician Wolf had practiced a little honest graft.

But he could have used funds from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program—a state grant program administered by the Office of the Budget to fund economic, cultural, recreational and historical improvement projects. We’re not talking “bridges to nowhere,” the $320 million Federal earmark for a tiny Alaskan town that became a symbol of wasteful pork-barrel spending. Many (though admittedly not all) of the projects funded by RCAP dollars contribute to real economic development. Yet Wolf to date is not known to have dangled the prospect of RCAP funding before any recalcitrant legislators in exchange for their support on his proposed budget.

Maybe it’s time for a little less purity and a little more practicality in our politics. Locally, it was distasteful to reformer Michael Nutter, when pushing for the $1.8 billion sale of PGW, to try and sprinkle some of that windfall into the local coffers of City Council members in exchange for their support. (Or, at least, in exchange for even holding a hearing). At the Federal level, once earmarks—Federal WAMs, in effect—were banned, there was no turning around the 2013 government shutdown. Then-House Speaker John Boehner bemoaned the fact that, without earmarks, he couldn’t get the 218 votes he needed to pass legislation. “I’ve got no grease,” he said.

One of Leach’s signature achievements is getting a medical marijuana bill through the State Senate last year. He did it the old-fashioned way, by pushing political levers. “Lobbyists and advocates are paid to be purists,” Leach says. “Being a legislator is very different. You learn that you have to keep the advocates at bay. I had to tell the marijuana people, ‘You’re not going to get everything you want.’”

It took him roughly a decade, but Leach says he learned the importance of incremental progress, and he doubts that those who are new to the weirdly insular world of how laws get passed can understand that. I’m as turned off by wasteful pork-barrel spending as the next guy, like the $211,000 once earmarked for olive fruit fly research or the $188,000 for a Lobster Institute in Maine. But Mario Cuomo used to say, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” Spending for pet projects like roads and bridges in home districts in exchange for support on budgetary priorities that can advance the common good? That’s the prose Cuomo was referring to. And maybe it requires having been there to know how to do it.

Leach is exhibit A. When he was younger and purer, he was also not quite as successful. “Saying you got a half a loaf is thought of as a pejorative,” he says. “But in a state like Pennsylvania, a half a loaf is actually a huge accomplishment.”

Header Photo: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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