Sunday, April 30, 2006

Talk About Cacooning

You are a young conservative so you:

Only watch Fox. Check.

Only read the Washington Times online. Check.

Only listen to Rush on the radio. Check.

Only read WSJ editorials. Check.

Only subscribe to the Weekly Standard. Check.

But, it's lonely being right.

So check this out.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Fill 'Er Up

We interrupt the hysteria over rising gas prices in America for the following bulletin:

Average Gasoline Prices in 10 Cities

Hong Kong..........$5.62

Prices are in U.S. dollars for a U.S. gallon of unleaded regular (3.785 litres)
Prices are those posted as of early to mid-April, 2006
Sources: CNN and various gas-price web sites.

P.S. The vehicle pictured above is a Hummer H2. It has a 32-gallon gas tank. It would cost $208.80 to fill 'er up in Oslo. Which may explain why you don't see any H2's in Oslo. In Philly, it would cost a mere $96.32.

Where's Bob?

Here is a hilarious piece by the Santorum campaign about state Treasurer Bob Casey. It was paid for by the Santorum campaign itself, not that soft-money front group that ran a flight of anti-Casey ads the other week on the same topic. My favorite is when you click on the light.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pucker Up

Gov. Rendell confesses to a group in Lower Bucks that one reason he signed the pay grab bill was because you "have to kiss a little butt" in Harrisburg to get things done.

As Alison Hawkes reports in the Doylestown Intelligencer, Rendell told the Bucks County Chamber of Commerce:

“If I didn't sign it, I might have been governor for the next five years but I would have gotten nothing done, literally, because I need the cooperation of the Legislature,” he said. “I've had remarkable success in getting seven major initiatives enacted into law. ... So you have to kiss a little butt.”

Rendell is right. He would have been toast if he had vetoed that bill, but that won't stop the quote from blinging, blanging and clanging about the political landscape.

Final question: If you begin by kissing some butt, what do you do for an encore?

Darn That Thing

Lynn Swann went before a group of retirees in Camp Hill the other day and promised a tax relief plan that would cap property taxes as long as people owned their homes.

No can do, according to the experts, because it violates the state's Uniformity Clause.

It may be obscure to most citizens, but policy wonks, pols and tax lawyers have it tattooed inside their skulls -- Article VIII , Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It states that:

"All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws. "

It's the reason Pennsylvania has a flat income tax.

In the 1970's, when Gov. Milton J. Shapp enacted the state's first income tax, it was graduated -- i.e. the rate varied according to income. The state Supreme Court slapped him down. Shapp had to go back to the legislature and fight the fight again, this time to get a flat tax.

That's the most famous case, but there are volumes of case law on the clause, which date back to the 19th Century.

Why would capping property taxes violate this clause?

Example: Your house is assessed at $100,000 and you pay $2,500 a year in taxes. A neighbor across town has a house assessed at $100,000 and pays the same tax.

Over the years, though, your house greatly increases in value, while his house hardly increases in value at all. Yet, you both still pay $2,500.

Hmmm. That's not uniform.

Final question: Who the heck is advising Swann that he would advance such an idea?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Reverse Nuremberg

The phrase was actually coined by a former Mayor of Philadelphia (who shall remain nameless) to describe a different situation.

But, it does accurately summarize the testimony of former CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former chairman Ken Lay at their Enron corporate fraud trail in Houston.

Both men have invoked the Reverse Nuremberg Defense.

"I was only giving orders."

Questions & Answers

A current events quiz.
See how many you can get right.

Question: Who does Johnny Dougherty think is his most formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2007? Answer

Question: Has anyone detected signs that Ed Rendell is worried about his standing in western Pennsylvania? Answer

Question: Can you name the next group to be disappointed by their experience in ward politics in Philadelphia? Answer

Question: Guess who is hopelessly lost in a maze? Answer

Question: Why did the governor go to the gas station? Answer

Question: Guess who is underwhelmed by the Lynn Swann campaign? Answer

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Megaphone Man II

It's not equal time, exactly, but as I mentioned in Megaphone Man (see below), I want to use this blog to air the opinions of people who take issue with what I write.

Recently, I did two pieces on special legislation sponsored by House Speaker John Perzel to forbid people in New Jersey from complaining about loud noise that emanates from the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

I did one piece on April 16th. The second on April 23rd.

Here is a Perzel letter taking issue with my taking issue with his bill.

It may be printed in the paper, but hasn't yet.

The Councilman's Lament

I'm sorry, so sorry for taking those bribes.
It was wrong of me. It's all bad vibes.
But, here's good advice before I go to jail:
In taking bribes, don't leave a paper trail.

Take cash! No checks. And no receipts!
If you do, the feds will don their cleats
And chase you until you are caught.
Your whole career will go for naught.

No salary, no benefits, no city car
No pension, no brandy, no Cuban cigars.
I'm gettin' 6 to 10. Geez, what a drag!
And it's all because I didn’t use...
A brown paper bag.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Five-Second Summary

New and recommended:
My colleague Larry Eichel's series on taxes in Philadelphia. A two-part series.

For you web hummingbirds, I offer a five-second summary:

Philadelphia's tax burden is among the highest in the nation.

The current mayor hasn't done much about it.

He says the need to maintain city services trumps the demand for lower taxes.

The issue will have to wait until the election of a new mayor.

(Who probably won't do much about it, either.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Tom's Political Book Club

If Oprah can have one, why can't I? Four new and recommended books for Spring 2006:

Ed Rendell
Seven Highly Effective Choke Holds For Reporters.
Kirkis Review:
The personable Pennsylvania governor gives his unique take on media relations. “When words won’t do, it’s time to take action,” Rendell writes, offering useful tips on how and where to grab reporters (Rule No.1 is “Never Below the Belt!”). Rendell also reveals his secret method for fending off hostile questions: “I turn beet red, break out in a sweat, and start grunting. They think I’m having a heart attack and back off.” The governor also offers practical advice on what he calls “confrontation etiquette.” One pointer: Never tug on the necklace of a female reporter, unless you are willing to pay to have it re-strung. Another pointer: if you grab a reporter’s tape recorder, always return it once you are done removing the tape and tearing it apart with your teeth. A must-read guide for public officials. * * *

Lynn Swann
1,001 Things I Don’t Know About Government
Publishers Monthly: This is the first volume of what the former Steeler's star promises will be a multi-volume set. In the forward, he promises to “tell the truth as I see it,” and he delivers. Swann expresses doubts about “this separation of powers thing” and questions the “needless duplication” of having local, state and federal highway system. "If we got rid of one," he opines, "we'd save millions!" In another provocative chapter, he asks: “If the state Senate has President Pro Tempore, shouldn’t there also be a President Amateur Tempore?” Swann expresses delight over his discovery that Pennsylvania “apparently has its very own Constitution” and talks about his excitement at learning there are two elections each year – a primary and a general – instead of just one, as he had always believed. A must-read guide for public officials. * * 1/2

Bob Casey Jr.
Blank Slate: Be Whatever People Want You To Be.
The Bookish Standard: How do you go from being a pariah of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, shunned by liberals and hated by abortion rights activists, to being the darling of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, lauded as its savior and fawned over by the liberal elite? Apparently, by standing very still. That’s the formula advanced by State Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Bob Casey in this practical “How To” book for would-be candidates. “Being nice and showing up on time helps, too,” Casey reveals. “Wearing a dark suit also is a plus.” Casey also recommends “knitting your brow, especially if you are blessed, as I am, with extra-strength eyebrows.” Casey disputes the adage that ninety percent of success is just showing up. “Sometimes,” he writes, “it can be as high as 95 or 98 percent.” A must-read guide for public officials. * * *

Rick Santorum
How To Alienate Friends and Infuriate People
Kirkis Review: The junior U.S. senator from Pennsylvania tackles interpersonal relations with the same brio he brings to political matters. Santorum offers a scathing critique of the classic How To Win Friends and Influence People, which he calls a “typical progressive-permissive-feel-good tract” written by someone whom, the senator suggests, was “certainly a liberal and, therefore, probably a pervert.” Our main goal in life, Santorum states, should not be to “make people feel good about being fat or ugly or stupid” but to tell them the truth. A sample of his advice: “Are you really doing a short person a favor by denying their shortness? Of course not! Better tell them that they are, de facto, midgets so they can learn to live with it.” The book contains many such gems. His chapter on “Handling Homos” is a classic. Santorum’s motto, taken from the Bible is: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But, the senator adds, “If someone is too dense to see the truth, incarceration should be an option.” A must-read for public officials. * * * *

P.S. Thanks to my colleague, Inquirer political writer Tom Fitzgerald, for his help in researching this item.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Megaphone Man

Doing a newspaper column is like having a giant megaphone.

And what happens if you disagree?

You get to send an email or call my reader line (215-854-2714) or write a letter to the editor, which -- if you are lucky -- will be edited for length and run in the letters section of the editorial page.

It doesn't seem quite fair. My loud voice versus your whisper of a reply.

To take a small step towards correcting that imbalance, I plan to offer a sort of point-counterpoint in this blog.

I'll post my original column, along with the most cogent (i.e. not a rant) reply.

I'll begin with a piece I did the other week criticizing some legislators for trying to pressure anti-gun activists to accept what they considered a watered-down version of a bill to limit handgun sales in Pennsylvania to one a month.

By the way, though they didn't write a letter, Vince Fumo's people complained to me that I was unfair to their guy by implying that he was acting at the behest of the NRA. They say he wasn't -- and that he proposed a compromise only after the bill's sponsors came to him asking for help in getting it passed in the legislature.

Here is the original piece.

Here is state Sen. Leanna Washington's reply.

Politics As Physics

Is the Rendell campaign trying to create a Newtonian moment in the gubernatorial campaign?

As in Isaac Newton, not Wayne.

Here are the particulars: Though it is way early, the Rendell campaign went up this week with a series of television ads in the state’s six media markets that tout the governor’s record. How big the buy is, how long the ads will stay up, is a state secret. My guess is it is a generous buy and will last at least two weeks.

Why so early when the governor has no opposition in the May 16 primary?

I see two reasons:

One: Because he can. Rendell has $15 million on hand. He can afford early TV.

Two: Because he must. Lynn Swann, the governor's Republican opponent, is tracking close to Rendell in most of the public polls, with the incumbent's lead ranging from an anemic 3 points to 11 points.

With these ads, Rendell is seeking to bring into play Newton’s Third Law, which (if you have never been tortured by physics) states:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Here is how the Rendell campaign hopes it works:

Rendell's ads tell voters he is a great governor. (action)
This causes Rendell’s poll numbers to rise. (reaction)
This increases the perception that he will be hard to beat. (action)
This impedes Lynn Swann’s efforts at raising money. (reaction)
Swann’s lack of money makes the race less competitive. (action)
Big contributors decide to send money to Rendell. (reaction)
Rendell uses that money to go up with ads to tell voters he is a great governor. (action)
This causes his poll numbers to rise.....etc. etc.(reaction)

Look upon this as an opening gambit in a long campaign.

But it does reinforce Swann’s need to raise a lot of money and raise it quickly to remain competitive in this race. See below: The Benjamin Factor

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Talk About Clean Sweep

You know the moment.

It's when you discover something so surprising and so horrid, the only reaction you can muster is to say "Oh, my God!"

They had an "Oh, my God" moment in Harrisburg this week.

Legislators picked up the Inquirer on Tuesday to discover Mario Cattabiani's story that John O'Connell, a popular lobbyist and former aide to Gov. Tom Ridge and House Speaker John Perzel:

A) Had a bad gambling habit.
B) To feed it, stole at least $160,000 from a political action committee he controlled.
C) Turned himself in to the IRS in August, 2004.
D) He ended up in the hands of federal prosecutors and the FBI.
E) He has been cooperating with the feds into an investigation into corruption.

You see part "E"?

That's where, if you are a Pennsylvania legislator, you say: "Oh, my God!"

You cull your memory for any conversations you ever had with John O'Connell. Then, you read this graph:

In a disclosure that is bound to cause a stir in the Capitol, the plea agreement says O'Connell agreed in January to act in an "undercover capacity" and allow federal authorities to monitor and record conversations he had with people "believed to be engaged in criminal conduct."

You say: "Oh, my God" again.

Within the next two weeks, O'Connell is expected to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud – a mere bagatelle, considering how much he stole. He is now officially a government canary.

I wonder who's going to win the race to call O'Connell the Jack Abramoff of Harrisburg?

I think I just did.

A Five-Second Summary

For you web hummingbirds, here is a 5-second summary of last night's debate among the three Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate:

Chuck Pennacchio: I'm more liberal than Bob Casey.

Alan Sandals: No, I'm more liberal than Bob Casey!

Bob Casey: I'm more liberal than Rick Santorum.

For a fuller rendering, see Carrie Budoff's story in today's Inquirer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Paging David Cohen

If your name is David Cohen and you live in Philadelphia, I have a suggestion: Why not run for City Council next year?

There are hurdles – the highest is collecting the signatures of 1,000 voters on your nominating petitions. But once you get a spot on the 2007 Democratic primary ballot for an at-large seat, the odds are you will win.

I am serious. Ask any bona fide political operative and they will tell you the same thing.

With a little luck (such as drawing good ballot position), you could win without spending a dime., You'll get a job that pays $102,292 a year and has top-shelf health and pension benefits. If you keep your nose clean, you can have it for life.

David Cohen did. He served in Council for 38 years until he died last October at age 90.

The telephone book tells me there are 15 David Cohens in Philadelphia and another 11 D. Cohens. There's got to be another dozen David Cohens with unlisted numbers.

Surely, among these 30-odd David Cohens there has to be one David Cohen with a desire to succeed David Cohen on City Council.

Besides, if don't run, some other Cohen will. David's widow, Florence, is already pressuring Council President Anna Verna to call a special election to fill David Cohen's seat. Verna nixed the special for the primary, but I'm betting she will call one for November. If she does, Florence Cohen will run and she will win.

Florence, who is 88, said she just wants to fill out David Cohen's unexpired term. But, her daughter, Sherrie Cohen, has announced that she wants to run for the David Cohen seat on Council in 2007.

Why should Sherrie Cohen get the David Cohen seat when a David Cohen can get the David Cohen seat?

Isn't it time to spread these jobs among other Cohens?

Consider: There was David Cohen, who served on Council. There is Florence Cohen, who worked for many years as his chief of staff.. There is Mark Cohen, their son, who is a state representative. There is Denis Cohen, another son, who is a Common Pleas Judge. There is Sherrie, their daughter, who now wants the David Cohen seat.

This isn't a family. This is a dynasty. It's Philadelphia's answer to the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the tiny German duchy which has provided princes and princesses for European thrones for three centuries. (Queen Elizabeth II of England descends from the Saxe-Coburg line, though they wisely changed the family name to Windsor during World War I.)

So, David Cohen, if you are out there, I encourage you to step forward and claim the David Cohen seat.

I've even got your campaign slogan figured out. Put this on about 10,000 posters (without your picture, please) and you will lead the pack of at-large candidates.

Continue The Tradition
Vote for David Cohen

A Five-Second Summary

For you web hummingbirds, fluttering from site to site, here is the rundown of would-be candidates for mayor of Philadelphia. It summarizes the 165,000 words written about them to date.

John Dougherty.......... Too wild
Dwight Evans.............. Too serious
Chaka Fattah............... Too lazy
Tom Knox....................Too rich
Michael Nutter............ Too smart
Jon Saidel.................... Toupe

Monday, April 17, 2006

Crystal Ball Department

There are lots of perks to being a newspaper columnist.

One of them is the crystal ball that enables us to predict the future. Every columnist has one, though we don't like to brag about it. But, when we write something like "this policy is doomed to failure..." we are not guessing. We have seen the doom.

Above is a picture of me taken in 2000, in my official "Columnist's Seer Uniform." I was in the process of predicting that Al Gore would be the next President of the United States, due to his narrow win in the popular vote.

As you can see, I had a goatee. I have since shaved it off, seeking to go for the youthful "with it" blogger look, ala Dan Rubin, our very own Blinq blogger, who trimmed his waist-length tresses to cater to the web audience.

There's a hitch to this crystal-ball thing. Like a pirate radio station, the signal is weak, the reach is limited. I can’t see too far into the future and often there’s too much static to tell what's what.

This is prelude to mentioning that sometimes I will consult my crystal ball and let you know what it tells me. It is an exclusive feature of this blog and -- warning to imitators -- I am in the process of copyrighting it.

My first prediction is that John Dougherty will succeed in his lawsuit challenging the legality of city’s new campaign finance law. That’s the law that limits contributions to mayoral candidates to $2,500 per individual and $10,000 per PAC.

Doc, head of the local electricians union and a wannabe candidate for mayor, is basing his challenge on state pre-emption. To translate: the state has a campaign finance law that does not limit giving, ergo Philadelphia cannot do so because it would pre-empt a state prerogative.

Once the court rules in Doc’s favor, the candidates for mayor will be free to raise as much as they want from whomever they want.

How do I know? My crystal ball told me so.

P.S: If it turns out any prediction I make is wrong and you are the first to call me on it (via email or the comments section of this blog) I will donate $25 to your favorite charity.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Benjamin Factor

Can Republican Lynn Swann truly be a competitive candidate against Gov. Ed Rendell?

One way to answer that question is to look at the independent polls. Most show Swann-Rendell as a close race.

Another way – one favored by us political writers – is to look at campaign fundraising reports. In the immortal words of Congressman Ozzie Meyers: “Bullshit walks and money talks.”

What the money is saying about Swann isn’t good, at least so far.

No one expects a challenger to match an incumbent dollar for dollar, but to stay credible you have to keep pace and Swann hasn’t.

The reports for the first three months of 2006 show that Rendell raised $3.4 million and had a total of $15.4 million on hand. Swann’s three-month report shows he raised just under $1 million had a total of $1.5 million on hand.

Not good.

Swann’s people say he’ll do better at fundraising over the next couple of months and point out that his name ID statewide – as a former Pittsburgh Steelers star – is worth millions.

Key date to mark down: June 15th, the day the next major campaign spending reports are due. If Swann hasn’t shown a big bump by then -- I'm thinking in the $5 million range in terms of dollars on hand -- he’s toast.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Last Man Standing

Sometimes you can win a fight at the weigh in.

Three weeks ago, Tony Payton was one of four candidates seeking to replace the ancient, absent and ineffective Bill Rieger as state rep in North Philadelphia’s 179th District.

Today, he is the last man standing.

The Democratic Party’s handpicked candidate was Emilio Vazquez, a protégé of Carlos Matos of Marge Tartaglione’s political clan. Vazquez filed suits challenging the nominating petitions of Payton, Rodnell Griffin and Walter Gnoza, saying they failed to get the required 300 voter signatures. The courts tossed Griffin and Gnoza off the ballot, but Payton won his case.

In turn, Payton sued Vazquez, saying he failed to correctly fill out his ethics disclosure form. To cite one example, Vazquez, who works at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, failed to list the PPA as a source of income. This is dumber than dumb, especially given recent court cases on this issue. The court tossed Vazquez off the ballot. There is a Republican running, but the last Republican to win in this district was Herbert Hoover.

Payton will be 25 in January, 2006, when he is sworn in as a member of the Pennsylvania House. He’s a resident of Frankford, a housing counselor with United Communities and activist in progressive political causes. He’s also a student at Community College of Philadelphia and is due to graduate in the spring, 2007.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Don't Know Much About History

Over the email transom comes this news release:

HARRISBURG - State Senators LeAnna M. Washington(D-Phila.) and Shirley M. Kitchen (D-Phila.) have introduced legislation to rename the North Office Building in the Capitol Complex after C. Delores Tucker, the civil and women's rights pioneer and Pennsylvania political icon.

Under their proposal, the building would be named the "Secretary C. Delores Tucker Office Building."

"Dr. Tucker's legacy to the citizens of Pennsylvania is one of vision, hope, courage and love for all humanity," Washington said. "The renaming of North Office Building in Harrisburg in her honor would insure that the extraordinary gifts she has given to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will serve as a living testament to her good works and endure beyond the millenniums."

The release notes that Tucker, who died in October, 2005, was the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State in Pennsylvania.

What it doesn't mention is that Tucker was fired by her boss, Gov. Milton Shapp, in 1977 after it was disclosed (by Bill Ecenbarger in The Inquirer) that she was spending much of her time in the job making political speeches, some of them written by state employees. She pulled in $65,000 for that speechifying, the equivalent of $223,000 in today's dollars.

My motto is De mortuis nil nisi bonum (A Latin proverb that translates: Speak no ill of the dead), so I'll just say that the authors of this legislation are either trying to ignore history or rewrite it.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Quack! Quack!

Watching Curt Weldon trying to finesse his first serious political challenge in 20 years is like watching a duck trying to make love to a football.

Recent example: Weldon's remarks about the daughter of his opponent, Joe Sestak.

Here's the set up: The Hill, a Washington, D.C. daily on politics, does a story about Weldon's race v. Democrat Joe Sestak in Delaware County's 7th Congressional District. Weldon is clearly trying to get a hook into Sestak for being a carpetbagger. This is how he pitches it to The Hill reporter:

" Weldon attacked Sestak’s decision to continue owning a home in Virginia while only renting in Pennsylvania and questioned why Sestak did not move back to Pennsylvania when he was working at the Pentagon. Weldon commutes from Pennsylvania each day.


Weldon also suggested Sestak should have sent his daughter to a hospital in Philadelphia or Delaware, rather than the Washington hospital. Sestak said that as soon as doctors give his daughter the all-clear, he’ll buy in Pennsylvania."

Sestak was born and raised in Delco, but spent 31 years in the Navy before retiring in January. Last year, his daughter, Alexandra, now 4, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor and given months to live. Sestak was still in the Navy, stationed at the Pentagon and living in the Washington area, so he and his wife took the kid for treatment at Children's National Medical Center in D.C. After months of treatment, her cancer is in remission. Mother and daughter continue to reside in D.C. while those treatments continue.

Weldon's campaign manager tries to dig him out in Tom Fitzgerald's story in the Inquirer.