Sunday, August 06, 2006

An Interview with Chris Casey (134th PA House)

Chris Casey is the Democratic candidate for the 134th Pennsylvania House district, against incumbent Republican Doug Reichley. The 134th district represents parts of Berks County consisting of the townships of Hereford, District and Washington and the boroughs of Bally and Bechtelsville in Berks County and part of Lehigh County consisting of Lower Macungie, Salisbury (Ward 5) South Whitehall (District 3, 4 and 5) Upper Macungie (district 4) and Upper Milford Township (east division) along with the boroughs of Alburtis, Emmaus and Macungie.

In the biography on your website you say you “endured 12 long, hard years of Catholic Education.” What is your opinion on school choice and school vouchers?

Yes, my parents scraped and struggled to put myself and my older brother and sister through catholic school. Half of my $800 a year high school tuition came from credit my Father earned volunteering as the cashier for Bingo every Monday and Thursday for four years, and my grade school years they paid the standard tuition which I believe cost between $300 to $600 at that time in the late 1960's and early 70's.

They made a choice to give their children a religious based education, and they paid for it. The state gladly took their taxes, and they didn't get reimbursed for opting out. Public school funds should not be used to support religious education of any kind. You pay taxes to support education for all citizens, not just your own kids.

We have separation of church and state for a reason, so government shows no favoritism towards any sect. Who decides what schools deserve vouchers? That is one pandora's box that should never be opened

Also in your biography you mention that you met your wife online. What is your opinion of regulation on material on the Internet and on access to that material?

Concerning the Internet, I believe parents have the right to control the content their under 18 children view. Otherwise, freedom of speech, no matter how disgusting or disagreeable, its' content must be protected. If you don't like it, don't look at it, and stop reading it. We have to make individual choices, Was it Ben Franklin who said that those who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither? We can't let others make choices for us. Would you really want to live in a world, or country where the government only approved the content it thought would not offend you? I wouldn't

By the way, my tenth wedding anniversary is this September, I think this is one instance where an online relationship worked out.

On the issue of marriage, you suggest that the word marriage not be used in government licensing laws and all legal relationships between consenting adults be called civil unions. Is this something your potential constituents have suggested to you or that you have heard them discussing or is this your individual opinion?

I have met about a dozen same sex couples in the 134th district, and this issue came up all but once.

The State should allow Civil Unions so that two people of the same sex can enjoy the same legal rights as any heterosexual couple. If a church or religious person doesn't want to perform a marriage ceremony, they can refuse. But there are many who can and do. Let the individual churches decide. I just made a similar point with Lehigh Valley Ramblings the other night about Jesus instructing "Render unto God That which is God's, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Government needs to avoid regulating anything to do with religious beliefs, and we can't show favoritism to one set of beliefs over another. It is really not that hard a concept to comprehend, It is called Tolerance, but some fringes of the right get whipped up into a fury over respecting the rights of a minority of the population. They blur it into an assault on "Family values", and all logical reason gets lost. Individual rights are important to me, and I look at history and see how this country came to be. People forget that the Quakers founded PA, The Catholics founded Maryland, The Puritans were first in Massachusett's. WHY? because they refused to join the Anglican church and were outcasts in their homeland. Their beliefs were not mainstream, and I see persecution of the Gay population by the religious wrong as another example. The rights of Gays to be recognized legally as partners may not be a traditional right, but I would argue it is an inherent one.

I'm going to tell you what I believe in answering these questions and why. I'm not going to play up to conservatives to try and woo their votes. I'm going to be me. I'm not exactly a practicing Catholic, but four years in a Catholic, all boys College Preparatory school taught me not what to think, but how to think. I had the Greater Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, and his treatise on the logic of God drilled into my head, throw in the study of Latin and Greek Philosophers, and I came to my own conclusion that God exists, as Einstein described him,and as a God everyone can define in whatever way they see fit. The answer could be 42 as Douglas Adams wrote, or maybe God does play dice with the Universe, but we would all be better served if we quit invoking his name for why we did something, or why we believe it. That would be showing God some respect, not persecuting gays, waging war,or holding suspected "terrorists" in a place called Gitmo and torturing them. I also don't believe the people of Pennsylvania think that Illegal immigration is as big a problem as Republicans would like them to think, and the ranting about how dangerous they are doesn't exactly follow the lead of the "Good samaritan" parable does it? I wouldn't pretend to have a grasp on what is on God's mind, but my mind tells me that those things are all wrong, and I don't need God to tell me that.

Are you in favor or opposed to legalized slots?

I applaud those who legalized slots for trying to do something to lessen the property tax burden. But I would not have voted to legalize slots. I would have voted to try and encourage the creation of 12 to 15 Economic Development regions. We need high tech industrial Hubs like the Triangle in the Carolinas, or the several areas in California. We have the resources, manpower, and intellectual power in this state to facilitate many growing industries that will rise in the next two decades. For instance, Caterpillar has a two year backlog on orders for heavy equipment for overseas orders. They need plant capacity, and easy access to ports. Pennsylvania has plenty of rooms, and a plant like that would spin of millions of dollars in other jobs and revenue. But according to Business Publications, they are looking in the Midwest and Carolinas for a place to locate. Pennsylvania should be on that list.

So why don't I like slots? I play the lotto occasionally, like anyone else, but I have deep reservations about adding an addict driven variable to our economic equation. I also weigh the overall impact on the community, and I will argue that the wealth created will be poured right back into dealing with the myriad of problems created also. The results of more than two decades of slots in New Jersey is also a record that isn't all that promising to look at, so I have many doubts.

How do you think schools should be funded?

I'm not sure I have a definitive answer on how to fund schools. I've tried all kinds of formulas, from raising the Personal income tax to 6%, to increasing sales taxes to 7%, and many combinations. You can't please everybody. It looks like the only fair solution that would allow for the elimination of School Property taxes, and School property taxes only, is at least doubling the personal income tax, and if school districts still need more than that, let them put local sales tax increases on the ballot. I have my reservations about letting the state handle all the funding for schools, The state isn't exactly doing a great job of funding now. I did the math on many scenarios and raising the personal income tax is a great deal for anybody who makes UNDER the state average who owns an average property. However, the more money you make, the more you pay, and in many districts, homeowners in a McMansionland will pay more in Personal income than they would have under our present system.

It's fair, but political suicide, especially in my district. So I think I will lead and say it is a good idea. Because I think it is.

You propose a yearly fee of $2500 for lobbyists. Would this include umbrella organizations for smaller groups, like the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Organizations that represents many very small community-based groups?

You also suggest that lobbyists be barred from donated to individual campaigns but allow them to vote for party organizations. How would that system be better than donations to individual campaigns?

I will try to answer the questions on Lobbying issues in one fell swoop. I pretty much agree with the parameters put forth by Democracy rising, I just think they should be stricter. I can see where a registration fee could be a burden for smaller groups of interests. So including umbrella groups representing more than one interests is negotiable, but also would open it for abuse. The big boys will always find that loophole that lets them flaunt the law. Perhaps letting smaller groups, who donate less than $50,000 a year pay only $1000? I'm open to discussion, but we need a defined line in the sand. Any and all lobbying activities and all gifts, donations etc need to be reported, no matter how brief the encounter or small the value, taxpayers need to know who is attempting to influence their representatives.

I am seriously rethinking my original position on barring lobbyists from donating to individual campaigns, but allowing them to give to PACS. You know if they want to get a candidate some money, they will. So I would suggest that I could live with allowing Lobbyists to donate to individual campaigns, but in the spirit of trying to help level the campaign money field, limit donations to a candidate by a single donor to $1000 per campaign year. I think that may be a more realistic goal to reach a compromise.

What kind of guidelines for development would you like to see for the 134th district and the region at large?

When we talk about development in my district, we talk of how reckless and spotty it has been. I am not anti growth, I am anti thoughtless scattershot growth, and in the Macungie's especially, the effects of new home construction have been disastrous for many long time residents. Low Level flooding has damaged even some of the newer areas, and local municipalities refuse to admit there is a problem, blaming laws that they say tell them they have to let a developer do what he wants.

There are no new laws that can be written to fix the problem of greed by developers and Township officials who accept campaign contribution from the same developers. They are the judge and juries of their own trial. The people of the community need to vote them out, and I believe that day of reckoning may soon be coming.

Now one item I do find important is the implementation of mass transit hubs.

We are going to need better bus and rail service in the very near future, because rising oil prices will end the era of the 3 car family. We need to facilitate policies toward the better use of living space in communities, and make them more pedestrian friendly. I am fortunate that I can ride my bike or walk to Giant and the attached shopping and Health center.

We have a population in the 134th that commutes through out the Lehigh Valley to as far away as New York City, yet the construction of the Route 222 bypass eliminated the private bus company terminal many used to go to work each day,with no plans to replace it. So folks are now driving 10 to 15 miles over to Freemansburg off of route 33 to get a bus .That is insanity.

I oppose the misguided recommendations of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission to spend more than $600 million to widen US 22 to 8 lanes. It would be money better spent restoring rail service along old trolley lines in the greater Lehigh Valley area, and expanding and encouraging the use of mass transit to lessen the problems of pollution, traffic jams, and Sprawl. I believe that if we built rail lines, developers would build along them as they did Highways. I also believe those stations for Bus and Rail would become mini-hubs of commerce. I served overseas in Germany while in the Army. Those people don't waste space, and you can get everywhere you need to go without a car. I don't think that is a bad vision to have for the Lehigh Valley, especially when you consider the costs of a gallon of gas.

You have been credited with making public the misuse of public funds by elected officials in your township. Was that a difficult decision to make?

The Upper Macungie Abuse of authority scandal has been very hard on my wife and me. During the election last fall, I questioned nepotistic hiring practices by my opponent, and got a barrage of hate mail and threats I could never have imagined.

One letter writer in particular hinted it would be a shame if I let my Dogs out in the yard and they were to get away. I ignored it, but it terrified my wife, so I took precautions. These people are still at it now, but one idiot put his return address on the envelope, and I am dealing with it privately. They aren't exactly a group of Einstein's.

There is still an ongoing investigation, and I am limited by law in what I can comment , but I would do it again without blinking, because when you turn a blind eye to criminal activity, you become complicit.

Before the election, I received numerous detailed anonymous letters instructing me in how the law was being ignored by certain Township officials, especially my incumbent opponent, who no one had ever truly challenged. Even though I authenticated the charges in them, I did not use it in the election. I just couldn't do it. After the election, and with a lot of soul searching, I sent the info I had to the Ethics commission. I felt it was best to let them handle it, not the media, and I encouraged other citizens with similar concerns to do the same. I am the only one who has been "outed", so I have been taking the brunt of the blame for exposing their illegal actions. Some people just have to shoot the messenger. The State Ethics Commission launched an investigation, my opponent has now resigned, moved far away, but says the investigation is not why.

That's where it stands today.

What do you see as the most important challenges that the state rep for the 134th district?

Smart growth and diversifying the economy of the Lehigh Valley region are the biggest challenges of my district. We Have enough of the lower paying "Servant Sector" jobs, what we need are more of the Research and manufacturing based jobs that would keep the highly skilled workforce graduating from local colleges from fleeing the state. Canon moving to South Mountain was a start, but Tyler Pipe abandoning Lower Macungie and taking several hundred jobs is a setback. I don't believe that parents dream of their kids working their life away as a manager at Walmart, but as a researcher or professional at a business like Air Products or Lehigh Valley Hospital Health Network. If we don't expand the opportunities in the White Collar job base, the brain drain from PA will continue and probably accelerate, and that does direct the tax base..

You don’t have the traditional background for a state representative. What will your life experiences bring to the legislature?

My background for state representative is that I live in the real world of regular Pennsylvanians, I hold a real job overseeing operations in a warehouse, and I have all the same problems that they do. Most Importantly, I have common sense, and real life experience, where it could be argued that many of the present members of the legislature live in a different world than the rest of us. I once had to file bankruptcy, and I presently am more than 2 1/2 years into a car loan and have a Visa credit card in good standing with a balance of only a few hundred dollars that I could pay off in a few months. Yet Speaker Perzel says more than 30 members can't get credit, and people running Tattoo parlors make more than they do? I think under those guidelines I am more qualified than at least 30 of the present members.

What question didn’t I ask that you would like to answer?

You didn't exactly ask me where I stand on reform,just lobbying, and I believe that the children of the statehouse have played fast and loose with rules for too long.

I would end Ghost Voting, the per diem, and the car leasing program. I would require legislaters to pay for their own health care at a rate comparable to regular working folks, and I would propse eliminating walking around money.

I know that getting these ideas through are about as likely as throwing a snowball in hell, but I'd rather get burned trying than play it safe and become another "RoboDem" member of the caucus. I'm willing to compromise if they are, but we have to show the average folks in PA that we hear them, and the days of the disconnect are over, and the lines of communication reopened.

I think that is everything, thanks for the opportunity!


Bernie O'Hare said...

Very nice interview with a very untraditional candidate. My congrats to both of you.

AboveAvgJane said...

Thanks, Bernie!