Freindly Fire’s Voter’s Guide to Election Day

Don't pull the lever til you read this

As millions of Pennsylvanians head to the polls for today’s primary election, experts have noted that the electorate is restless, volatile, and even angry. They attribute this to unpopular spending policies and a backlash over ever-increasing taxes.

With so many people losing jobs, houses and retirement accounts, the level of interest in how the people’s business is conducted has reached record highs. [SIGNUP]

At the same time, the level of cynicism and mistrust is also off the charts. Many activists have learned that challenging the establishment is a daunting task, leading some to become frustrated by the entrenched business-as-usual order that prevails.

As a result, there is a growing perception that most candidates are just more of the same, cleverly disguising themselves as reformers and agents of change to appeal to the electorate’s current mood.

And that’s not an unfounded perception.

All the candidates for U.S. Senate and governor have snappy television ads and slick mail pieces, and all promise virtually the same thing: more jobs, lower taxes and a reformed, more accountable government.

But since all of the candidates detailed below are current office holders, they are, by definition, part of the very establishment against which they campaign. So how do people know which ones to trust, and for whom to vote?

Too many citizens either don’t vote, especially in primaries, or pull the lever merely because of a TV ad or yard sign. Given the enormous problems that confront us, it’s time for voters to make better informed decisions.

Granted, there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, but if more than a precious few exercised the three “C’s” — common sense, core values and consistency — our government would be infinitely more efficient, and we might actually have a chance of turning the ship around before it plows into the iceberg.

As an Election Day primer, Freindly Fire cuts through the political spin to look at the not-so-well-known political baggage each candidate brings with him, with the hope that such knowledge will allow readers to make the best, most educated choice for Pennsylvania’s future as they head to the polls.

U.S. Senate

-Thirty-year incumbent U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who has been defying the odds for much of his career, has to contend with the fallout stemming from his highly-publicized party switch. The question is whether Democrats will follow the lead of President Obama and Governor Rendell in welcoming Specter into the party, thankful for his decisive votes over the last year, or whether he will be booted from office because he is viewed as the ultimate political opportunist interested only in prolonging his own career.

Interestingly, Specter’s deciding vote on the stimulus plan — made as a Republican — was done so against the advice of trusted political advisors. Had he gone the safe route and voted with the GOP against the bill, he would have virtually assured himself no primary opponent (as he had also announced his opposition to the union-backed “Card Check” bill). So not only might the opportunism charge not stick, but Specter may, in fact, be rewarded for what he calls his most important vote of conscience.

-Joe Sestak has saturated the airwaves with commercials stating that Specter’s time has come and gone, with fresh blood needed in Washington. Running as an outsider, he has branded himself as an atypical politician. Yet his steadfast refusal to release records concerning his controversial departure as Deputy Chief Of Naval Operations, his paltry pay for campaign workers (while family members make thousands), and his large number of missed votes have led to questions about his character, judgment, and integrity.

The problem Sestak faces is that, for the most part, people aren’t voting for him; instead, he must rely on “Specter fatigue” — voters coming out against the incumbent. If Sestak is viewed as just another politician, voters will choose the “devil they know.”

Governor (GOP)

-State representative Sam Rohrer touts himself as a constitutional conservative while campaigning for fiscal responsibility and limited government. Yet on the most important issues to many in the GOP, Rohrer did the opposite of what he now preaches by voting for an unconstitutional pay raise as well as hiking his own pension by 50 percent. And that pension vote is the largest contributing factor to the state’s pension crisis, which is the ticking time bomb awaiting the next governor when state pension payments jump eightfold in the next three years.

-Attorney General Tom Corbett is certainly the most believable candidate who talks about “reforming Harrisburg,” since his legislative corruption probe has netted 10 felony convictions, as well as indictments of two former House Speakers — actions once thought unthinkable by many. But he is still dogged by charges from opponents that his investigations, as well as his lawsuit against Obamacare, are politically motivated.

Corbett’s most notable policy issue is his no-new-taxes pledge. While a sound policy, Corbett will be severely tested not to break it as the fiscal crisis grows to almost unmanageable proportions over the next governor’s term. Such pledges prove popular at election time, but the corollary is unmistakable: break it at your own peril. One only has to look at how much free time President George H.W. Bush had after he uttered — and then broke — one of the most remembered pledges in political history: “Read my lip, no new taxes.”

Governor (Democrats)

-Allegheny County Dan Onorato’s $8 million war chest has staked him to a large lead, allowing him to run as the reformer who will clean up Harrisburg. But as the candidate most closely linked to Ed Rendell — the very Governor who has presided over the environment that needs to be “reformed” — Onorato has learned to dance the Harrisburg Two-Step perfectly: reaping the Rendell Machine’s largesse while publicly calling for change. It remains to be seen in the general election if Onorato’s stategy will be seen as genuine or a business-as-usual extension of the Rendell Administration.

– State Senator Anthony Williams has run perhaps the most unusual campaign. Despite being late to the show, he has raised an astounding $5 million, mostly from a few individuals advocating school choice. Of particular interest is that, despite receiving some of the largest campaign contributions in the history of Pennsylvania politics from these one-issue folks, Tony Williams has never introduced true school-choice legislation.

One must question how Williams can convince people that he is their education savior when he hasn’t actually gotten any education reform legislation passed. Meanwhile, the system continues to crank out functional illiterates from deathtrap schools.

The larger question is how a Harrisburg insider — one who also voted for the pay raise — can effectively run as reformer. And the answer is that he can’t, which is why, despite his millions, he hasn’t moved up at all in the polls.

-Auditor General Jack Wagner is viewed by many as the most genial of the Democrats who, if he could have raised any money, would have been the D’s best shot in November. Wagner has shown his independence by taking the Rendell Administration to task for waste and conflicts of interest in a number of audits, and has shown himself to be the only voice of reason and fiscal restraint on the Delaware River Port Authority Board of Commissioners. But with little campaign cash, Wagner’s chances are dismal at best. Some say good guys finish last in politics, and that may well be the case in this race.

-Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, while involved in a number of controversial issues in that job, has shown himself to be one of the most open and honest candidates in this race. A self-proclaimed proud liberal, Hoeffel chastises all of his competitors as being too conservative. Hoeffel admits that his philosophy would be a hard-sell in a general election, especially in this electorate’s anti-Democrat, anti-tax-and-spend mood, but has not backed off his platform. But with virtually no money in the bank, Hoeffel’s fight will be to stay out of last place.

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Given the fiscal armageddon Pennsylvania faces in the next four years —the state is facing budget deficits upwards of $7 billion — it is important to elect those most likely to take on the business-as-usual culture and put principle before politics. Cutting through the political spin and taking a hard look at the candidates now and in the fall — both the good and bad — and holding them accountable, is the best, and only, way to steer the ship back to calmer waters.

But given that voter turnout today is only expected to be average or slightly above, that message may sink in after it’s too late.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”
Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at