Thursday, March 31, 2005

A Sign of End Times

It now costs 70 cents to get a bag of peanut M&Ms out of the vending machine where I work. Hell in a handbasket, people, what more can I say?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Letter from Iraq

A few weeks ago I mentioned the kids at church assembled care packages for soldiers in Iraq. We followed the instructions and found addresses on This week I received a response from SPC Samantha. She thanked us for the packages, mentioned especially the candy and book sent for her, and a stuffed toy to be given to an Iraqi child. She ended with: "The country could use a lot of work and repair, but we are trying to help them do that." Let me encourage you all again to send out a care package or two yourself. The website tells you what to send, where to send it, and how to send it. The worst part of it is filling out the postal forms (the website tells you how to do that, too).

weekly legislative update

A lot of paper shuffling

Friday, March 25, 2005

Contrasting Candidates

Spring is in the air. The crocuses and other early blooming flowers are sending up shoots. The azalea leaves are starting to green. The other night I heard a flock of geese flying back from Florida or wherever they go to winter. The primary candidates are starting to pop up also. This past week I met two of them.

One came to the door. He is one of four candidates for judge. I’m not sure what he was expecting. At most houses he probably hands over his flyer and is on his way. I answer the door and he gives me his palm card. I look at it. The conversation between me (J) and him (C ):

J: So, you’re running for judge against candidates A, B, and C (listing off their names)
C: Where did you see that? (looking aghast)
J: I don’t know. Read it somewhere, I guess.
C: Where? In the paper?
J: I don’t know. Maybe.
C: Was it in today’s paper? I haven’t seen it. I didn’t see it in today’s paper.
J: Maybe it wasn’t in the paper.
C: Where did you see who was running?
J: I don’t remember. Maybe I saw it somewhere else.
C: Where?
J: I don’t know. Maybe I read it on the Internet.
C: Where on the Internet?
J: I don’t know. Maybe it was on a politicspa message board.
C: What’s your name? (looking at street printout)
J: Above Average Jane (okay, so that’s not what I told him but you get the drift). So, is the incumbent doing a bad job?
C: I think I could do a better job. I’m more qualified.
J: What’s the incumbent doing wrong?
C: I could be tougher.
J: The incumbent isn’t tough enough?
C: I could be tougher.
I step down off the porch. With every step I take towards him he steps back. By the time I reach the bottom he says he needs to get home for dinner and takes off. Now, honestly, if the guy is cowed by a short (height being one of the few things I am below average in), middle-aged, pasty-faced mom in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans, how is he going to be tough on crime? If he is flustered by a voter who knows all the candidates in a race, how is he going to handle those shark-like lawyers in the courtroom? I was not impressed and will find someone else to vote for.

The other candidate I met is someone I had met once before. The first time I saw him, about 4 months ago, he struck me as a slightly ratty looking kid, maybe 25, bad haircut, disheveled clothes, but smart and with good intentions. This week he was well-groomed, hair combed and cut, button shirt, slacks. He shook hands with everyone at the table, a good, firm candidate’s handshake. I commented on this and asked him if he brought self-addressed envelopes for campaign contributions. Someone told me I was being snide. I wasn’t being snide; I was being me. Maybe it’s the same thing. He took it in stride. People in the room knew who he was running against. He wasn’t startled by this. He made thoughtful comments, asked good questions, and took lots of notes. He oozed earnestness and youthful enthusiasm. He is the underdog and knows it, but is still determined and purposeful. I talked with him a little after the meeting was over. He offered to help on a project that would be of mutual interest. I can’t vote for him, wrong jurisdiction, but think he would be good for the job. Today I sent him a miniscule check, $25.00. Might buy him a few yard signs. I wish there were more like him.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Nice Nametags, GOP

This past week the National Republic Congressional Caucus met and I happened to be in the same place they were for a few hours. The faces were friendly but reserved. The suits were quality but not flashy. I saw one fur coat and one sparkly long dress. What I was most impressed with, though, were the nametags. The person's first name was in BIG letters with their full name and state in much smaller letters underneath. So upon seeing someone across the room you could have a conversation with them, using first names, but to find out their last name and where they were from you had to get within handshaking distance or closer, depending on your eyesight. (Someone I used to work with called this "nipple gazing" because of the usual placement of nametags on the chest.) Not that I was mingling with the bigwigs, mind you, we were just sharing hallways, bathrooms and common spaces for a brief time. Everyone in my group was scurrying to get out before "W" arrived to address the NRCC and the roads were all shut down. As I left the black sedans and guys with wires coming out of their ears were already setting up shop on the adjacent intersections. It was an interesting experience and they seemed like a nice crowd.

weekly legislative update

There was a great deal of paper shuffling in Harrisburg last week. A lot of bills laid on the table, picked up, committed, referred to appropriations, etc. A few bills were passed, most concerning terrorism, ecoterrorism, death benefits to police, emergency management, and the like. One that concerned me dealt with the release of public records. The bill put more rules on the release of sensitive materials. I scanned the text of the bill and it didn't look overly restrictive, although the wording in some places is open to interpretation. Two bills concerned alternate investments and adminstrative costs of state retirement monies.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Of Silliness and Tragedy

Oh, where to begin this week….. Let me start with what I originally planned to write. Jim Matthews, Montgomery County commissioner and brother of television commentator Chris Matthews, is in the news again. This time it is for suggesting the county only hire nonsmokers. While I applaud his attempt to hold down the county’s health care costs, I wonder if this is the way to start. After all, you are dependent on people being honest about whether or not they smoke, unless the county will hire someone to follow them 24 hours a day or sniff their clothes on a daily basis. Going after Joe Six Pack or Charmaine Chocoholic could be next and then, hey, they might get around to those who, like me, can’t keep away from the Mountain Dew. I wonder if Commissioner Matthews is willing to open his private life up to as close a scrutiny as he is proposing for those who work for the county. Is he willing to swear that he never has a beer or cocktail with lunch on a workday or before driving a government vehicle?

Looking into things further, last year Commissioner Matthews was in the news for publicly stating that he checked campaign finance reports to see if county employees were donating to those evil Democrats. And here I thought he was representing all the county residents, not just those in the Republican Party. Around the same time he declined to put a qualified man on a county commission because the man was a potential Democratic candidate for state office. Gee I hope he found a qualified Republican. I’d hate to think that he wasn’t putting the best possible, most knowledgeable people on an unpaid committee because of their politics. Color me na├»ve, but I’d hope an elected official would honor the office by keeping the well being of his constituency uppermost in his mind.

Commissioner Matthews has an additional headache, in the form of his fellow Republican commissioner Tom Ellis who has been having a bad year all around. His on again off again girlfriend and mother of his young child filed a protection from abuse order. Commissioner Ellis presents a dilemma for the county. When elected, his employer, the Ballard Spahr law firm, decided, out of the goodness of their collective partnered hearts, to continue paying his salary while he served the county. Thus the county paid him an annual sum of $1.00 and took the money it would have paid him to hire a deputy chief operations officer. Oddly enough the man hired is a longtime friend of Jim Matthews with limited experience in the area of his new job. A tangled web indeed. So if the county ousts Ellis they will also have to oust the man who is being paid his salary.

I had always thought the Republicans were the party of small government. Yet, here they are, peeking into ashtrays and campaign finance reports. On the federal level we have the GOP getting involved in what is primarily a family dispute, in the Shiavo family. I’m very glad I have a durable power of attorney and a living will. Hopefully those documents will circumvent any similar tragedies in my household.

But primarily I have been watching another heartbreaking story out of Florida, that of the little 9 year old girl who was taken out of her house and murdered. Either Mr. Jane or I, whichever is the last one up at night, double check the deadbolts on the doors. Even so I am painfully aware that some of the window locks leave something to be desired, and that if someone wants into the house they will get in. I am very thankful for the creaky stairs and floorboards that frequently wake me as the cat moves around. (He’s a very big cat and the floors and stairs are very creaky.) Hopefully they would alert me to anything larger and more menacing that creeps towards my children’s bedrooms. I hope you and yours are all safe.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Colds, Committeepeople, and Corruption

I’ve had a cold this week and stayed home from work for a day. While this isn’t exactly fun, for teetotalers like myself (no purist, I indulge in a couple of wine coolers a year) the delirium is a nice break from lucidity. I spent most of the day on the sofa watching court tv. There are some very strange and scary people out there. One new survival tip for my list – if you are so congested you can’t breath through your nose, don’t pop two whole wheat Ritz crackers in your mouth just because they are the last ones in the box. By the time you get the crackers chewed up enough to open your mouth you are gasping so much you nearly choke on the cracker bits. Small bites are definitely the way to go. It would make a great opening scene for “Six Feet Under.”

As for committeepeople, I continue to be amazed at the way party organizations alienate people. A year or so ago I signed off the email list for the local Democratic party. Nothing of substance ever came through, just lots of preaching to the choir and extraneous noise that had nothing to do with politics. In the last round of elections I signed up to be on a D candidate’s email list and he must have handed my email over to them, or else they kept it on file, because since the election I’ve received infrequent emails from them. (I signed up for the R candidate’s list also, but other than an acknowledgement of my request, they didn’t send me anything; however, a neighbor, who didn’t sign up, received a number of emails – go figure). The local group tends to contact me only when they want money or to advertise a success. Information is controlled and only goes one way. Since the email postmaster hasn’t figured out how to “bcc,” all the recipient’s email addresses are visible. Having heard a tidbit that I thought people would be interested in, I sent it around to everyone. Ooops! Got my hand slapped. Apparently only one person is allowed to send out email and a bigwig somewhere has to approve it beforehand. He did make a point of telling me he already knew what I had sent around. Since a few of those receiving my email followed up to ask questions, it must have been news to them. So, he has information, he just won’t share it, and isn’t happy about anyone else doing so either. Some people in the local political organization have invited me to attend their regular meetings but there does not seem to be a clear consensus as to whether the meetings are open to the public or limited to committeepeople. Never one to crash a party, I stay home. People tell me the Republican organization is very similar. This just strikes me as an excellent case study for a basic marketing course. Aren’t most organizations usually looking for new blood and to provide avenues for a variety of people to become active?

That leaves corruption. According to the papers the introduction of gambling to Pennsylvania has led a few politicos into shady and questionable land deals and business practices. Is anyone surprised by this? I maintain that gambling should require a statewide vote.

weekly legislative update

The House introduced over 100 bills and resolutions this week, all referred to committee. A handful of bills were tabled, picked up and otherwise shuffled around. A couple had some other action but all of those look like they were actually dealt with last November. One was signed by the governor last November so I'm not sure why it was listed again. The Senate showed similar activity. Two days of the week neither legislative body showed any activity all.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

weekly legislative update

The Pennsylvania House did not report any activity this week. The Pennsylvania Senate introduced several bills on Thursday and Friday. For those who might not have seen it, the Cato Institute issued report cards for all 50 US governors. Gov. Rendell received an F.

Proving a Negative

This matter of ghost voting has been troubling me. How do I know if my legislator is actually showing up for work? There are two key data points to have in order to check. One, you need to know when the legislator was NOT in Harrisburg. Two, you need to find out if the legislator voted that day. In a previous post I listed state representatives who were hoping to win state senate seats in this spring’s special election. I decided to pick one of those as the sample in this attempt to learn the wily ways of state government. Leanna Washington drew the short straw. (As a truth in advertising comment, let me note that she is not my state representative.)

First off, how to find out when she was not in Harrisburg? I am what professional campaigners scornfully refer to as a “googling monkey.” I have some skill with a search engine and put that skill to use and found three specific dates when I could verify that Rep. Washington was out of town. On February 26, 2000, she was in Los Angeles to receive the Citizens Commission on Human Rights Award. On June 22, 2000, she was in Washington, D.C. for an Ad Hoc Democratic Party Platform Meeting. (The site I found this on is no longer active but I found a cached copy for There may be other places currently hosting the information.) On December 3, 2003 she was in Houston Texas, for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators conference. The general assembly’s website has a calendar with historical information on it. A number of bills were signed into law on June 22, 2000.

Part two of this experiment involves checking to see if she voted those days. In the previous posting on ghost voting I mentioned that the state general assembly’s web site did not list who voted or how. There isn’t an information phone number listed on the site so I queried the webmaster. He (or she) replied with the following:

The House Bipartisan Management Committee and Senate Committee on Management Operations are responsible for approving information for release on the site. At this time, they have not approved that information.

You can call the House Chief clerk and/or Secretary of the Senate for copies of roll call votes. Also, roll calls are published in the Official House Journal and Official Senate Journal, available at many public and university libraries (but not online)

I also found a well-designed and informative website hosted by the Widener University School of Law giving detailed procedure for tracking legislation in Pennsylvania, entitled Pennsylvania: Compiling a Legislative History. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning how to track legislation on a particular topic.

A quick check of area library catalogs showed one that had the House Journal (it’s not as easy as you might think – some catalogs listed it as the House Journal, others as the Legislative Journal, others as something else). Off I went. Unfortunately the House Journal showed no legislative activity on any of the 3 dates I had. What gives??!!! Back to the general assembly website to check the calendar for the June 22, 2000 legislation. Picking one of the bills at random I pulled up the bill history. The date the bill becomes a law is the day the governor signs it, not the day it passed the house or senate – it is usually voted on a week or two earlier.

Curses, foiled again!!! Of course, it is still possible to track days legislators are verifiably out of town and then checking the House Journal to see if there was any activity or voting on that day but it is a cumbersome process. Proving a negative (that someone didn’t do something, as opposed to proving that they did) is always a difficult, if not impossible task. Walking through this exercise did teach me about the House Journal and the Senate Journal, which will allow me to keep closer tabs on my legislator and what the general assembly is doing. So it was well worth the effort.

What we, as voters, might do is lobby to have voting data made more easily available. No doubt there are plenty of people in the state who don’t have easy access to the journals. In any event, Rep. Washington is, as far as I can tell, in the clear.