Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The House on Stevens Lane

I've said time and again that if U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum loses re-election in November, a major cause will be the controversy surrounding his residency.

It is an issue where Santorum is the most vulnerable. It an issue that resonates with voters, especially in his base in western Pennsylvania. It is an issue that keeps returning to haunt the Republican incumbent.

It turns out that someone else shares my view - the Santorum campaign.

It's up with a radio ad in the Pittsburgh market attacking Casey for stalking the Santorum family and using campaign operatives to spy on his home on Stevens Lane in the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills. The house is pictured above, in a shot from the Post-Gazette.

The allegation the ad makes is nonsense, but -- as I said in my original post on this -- it is useful nonsense.

It is an axiom in politics that if you can't change the facts, you must change the topic.

This ad is Santorum's attempt -- probably the first of several -- to neutralize this issue by turning it around so it becomes a discussion not about his residency, but about his opponent.

To begin with, here are the facts as I understand them:

Rick Santorum, his wife and his six children do not live in Penn Hills, Pa. They live 217 miles away in Leesburg, Va. It's a common arrangement among elected officials who serve in Washington, D.C.

I see nothing wrong with this. Santorum spends most of his time in D.C. He wants to be close to his family. His family lives there with him. End of story.

But, these kind of arrangements can cause political difficulties. It opens a pol to charges that he has gone native and forgotten the little folks back home.

In fact, Santorum used that very issue -- a home in Washington -- in his campaign for Congress, when he defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Doug Walgren.

So, for voting purposes (and for political purposes), the Santorums do maintain a residence in Pennsylvania -- on Stevens Lane. They own the house and have a mortgage on it. For a while, Santorum relatives were reported to have lived there. More recently, it appears the house is vacant.

The issue arose most recently during May 16th primary. When Santorum showed up to vote in Penn Hills and two of his long-time Democratic opponents, Ed and Erin Vecchio, took exception. They said his house was vacant, ergo, he did not live in Penn Hills, ergo, he could not vote there. They threatened to file a suit over it.

Shortly after, KDKA-TV did a report about Santorum complaining that someone was "stalking" his house.

Later, the Santorum camp used that KDKA report as the basis of its radio ad (From the text of the ad: "According to a KDKA investigative report, a Casey operative admitted to trespassing on Rick Santorum's home in Penn Hills, peering into the windows looking for campaign dirt.")

For the record, the so-called operative was Santorum's old nemesis on the residency issue: Ed Vecchio, whose wife is a member of the local school board and the Penn Hills Democratic party chair. Vecchio denied to KDKA he had been spying on anyone -- and offered to take a lie detector test to prove his veracity.

But, wait there's more.

On reason this issue is so vexing for Santorum is that he keeps sticking his foot into it.

For starters, he failed to pay taxes on the house and was called on it by Vera Miller, a reporter for the local Penn Hills Progress in a 2004 story. He promptly paid.

But, it seems obvious that he didn't pay them because he didn't know about them. The bills were sent to the house on Stevens Lane.

Next, Miller got a tip that Santorum had five of his six children enrolled in a cyber-charter school, which they attended via computer in Leesburg, but that the Penn Hills School District was picking up most of the tab. Her original story ran in October, 2004.

It took a while for the story to gain traction beyond Penn Hills. Erin Vecchio helped. As a member of the local school board, she kept pressing the issue -- and demanding Santorum repay the district the $100,000 or so it paid the cyber-school.

Eventually, the Pittsburgh papers picked up on it and Santorum quickly withdrew his children from the school. The Pittsburgh Tribune ran this story on the dispute in November, 2004. Santorum withdrew his children from the school a week later.

The Penn Hills district later sought reimbursement of the monies paid for the Santorum schooling, but lost its case before the state Education Department.

But, the whole cyber-school thing doesn't resonate well. It smelled like someone who is big and powerful taking advantage of a small district.

But, wait there's more.

Also, in 2004, Santorum and his wife were involved in another flap, this time over jury duty. Several notices were mailed to the Stevens Lane house, but they were ignored. When Santorum did find out about it, he and his wife asked for a delay.

(Note to the Santorum campaign: Have someone check on the mail sent to the Penn Hills home on a daily basis and start forwarding it to Leesburg, Va.)

Santorum and his wife, Karen, finally did show up for jury duty when the Senate was in recess in November, 2004 and neither was picked for a jury.

It was an opportunity for Santorum to do the humble routine and say how important it is for every citizens duty to serve on jury and how glad he to finally do his part.

Instead, he had a Rick Santorum moment.

From the Post-Gazette story on their appearance:

"After local media reported his failure to appear in August, he and his wife made arrangements with the court to serve during the Senate's Thanksgiving recess.

"If this is what people think is a good use of their United States senator's time ..." Santorum said.

This didn't sit well either, being seen -- rightly -- as an example of senatorial arrogance.

Such a little house, so many problems.


Anonymous phillydem said...

Outstanding summary, Tom. You got all the facts right. The folks in western Pennsylvania aren't dumb and I doubt they'll be swayed by Santorum's ads exactly because 99% of them know Rick and Karen and their kids don't live in Penn Hills and haven't for years.

One thing I don't understand, though, is why Santorum, when he sold his first Virginia house, decided to buy in Leesburg instead of somewhere like on the southern PA
border? He could have a bought a similar size house, probably new construction, too, on a large lot anywhere from Carlisle to Lancaster
and still been close enough to DC to commute almost daily. If he'd done that, he'd have one house, no questions about his residency and be living in GOP voter rich country.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Piltdown Man said...

It is clear that Santorum and Brabender want to make "the children" an important part of this campaign.

Their first web ad starred young Elizabeth, and their first negative radio spot is based on this invented story that "the kids were in DANGER!"

Using the children is a tried-and-true tactic. And in today's child-obsessed world, it has probably "tested well." The beauty of it is, of course, is that it's hard to refute, without sounded like a child-hating curmudgeon.

It should be noted that the entire event was most likely in the works for months now. Brabender and Santorum were shrewd enough to knew that the Vecchios would be back; so they set up a "what if" scenario and sat back and waited. Karen's inappropriate and totally ludicrous call to the Capitol Police ("Ma'am, that's a little off our beat...") was not the move of a worried mother, but rather a well-planned chess move by a political operative.

Perhaps, at some, Rick will suggest that his kids should debate Casey's....


7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another example of GOP Dumb we can all watch like a slow-motion car wreck over the next six months:

Curt Weldon is going to try to do the exact same thing to Joe Sestak.

He is not going to learn from the backfire that burned him when he included Sestak's sick daughter the first time he tried.

He is not going to recognize the difference between, say, the Santorum situation and Sestak's active-duty military status.

And he is not going to see how vulnerable he is on service personnel issues (see last week's op-ed in the Daily News on Weldon's lack of support for military health-care funding: http://www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/news/opinion/14588907.htm)

I just hope that the voters of the 7th District are listening. It's going to be fun to watch Crazy Curt self-destruct.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Jim in West Chester said...

Sorry ... I'm NOT OK with Santorum living in Virginia. My wife's job requires 50% travel for a week at a time to her home office in the UK and somehow we've managed to raise a family (I'm a stay-at-home-dad)without moving to London. If he doesn't like the commute let him QUIT.
It STINKS of priveledge and I hope my fellow Republican voters see thru it.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Bob Bray said...

Great column Tom. It really does my heart good to see the arraogant brought to task. None more arrogant than Rick; except maybe for his hero, "W".

4:19 PM  
Blogger Bob Bray said...

Great column, Tom. I just love to see the arrogant brought to task, and there's none more arrogant than Slick Rick.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

phillydem, that's an excellent point. But Leesburg is more prestigious to the DC crowd than rural PA. It's a historically important Civil War town.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Jim in West Chester said...

Politics aside ... doesn't it constitute FRAUD to say you live one place, but actually live in another. How about bank applications? tax forms? drivers license? voter rolls? What address did he use on his election nomination petitions?
I mean if the house is literally empty and he doesn't spend a single night there, how can he claim it a residence? And if it's OK for him, maybe I'll take up 'residence'in a state where I won't have to pay the PA State tax. Or is that trick just for my senator?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous phillydem said...

Is Leesburg more prestigious than Gettysburg? The Santorums could easily live there.

Jim in West Chester - I'm waiting for an enterprising journalist to ask to see Santorum's state tax records to see if claims full time or part time residence in PA.

11:45 AM  

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