Sunday, July 23, 2006

Interview with Jeff Albert (12th state senate)

I don't have a favorite quote from this interview but I found many of his answers very thorough and informative. I especially draw your attention to his description of the redistricting process and merit selection for judges.

Jeff Albert, Democratic candidate for the 12th state senate district, was part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s March on Washington in 1963 and has been active in regional politics for many years. He helped start Bucks County Common Cause. Moving to Montgomery County he served as chair or treasurer for all of Joe Hoeffel’s state house campaigns and continued to serve as an advisor to him later. He served as an Abington Township commissioner from 1985 to 1989. The family then moved to Upper Dublin Township and Albert has served as chair of the Upper Dublin Democratic Committee. A lawyer, he argued against the 2001 redistricting plan before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on a pro bono basis. He has also been on the Montgomery County Governmental and Fiscal Controls Commission and chair of the Eastern Montgomery County Neighborhood Division of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The district is currently represented by Republican Stewart Greenleaf. A previous post gave a district description and map link.

You issued a press release criticizing Stewart Greenleaf for not voting for mandatory minimum sentences for people who sold drugs that resulted in a death. Do you support mandatory sentences generally? (link to press release)

In the 1970s, as issues director for Joe Hoeffel’s first successful state house campaign, I drafted a call for mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania. All too frequently, sentencing had been based upon the finances of the defendant (with the affluent or well connected getting shorter sentences, while many minority defendants received longer sentences) or the relationship between defense counsel and the judge.

Later, Sen. Greenleaf became a staunch advocate of such rules, favoring tougher and tougher sentences. Even as recently as 2004, he reiterated that, in his view, when it came to those convicted of first or second degree murder, “life means life.” The inevitable result has been overcrowded prisons, while encouraging clever evasion of those limits by drug dealers (such as those for possession of drugs) and, sometimes, overburdened district attorneys.

However, recently Sen. Greenleaf became an advocate of loosening the very same sentencing requirements he had helped to enact. He has time and time again cited the cost of running the prisons, and, in particular, the cost of incarcerating infirm and elderly inmates.

Some have viewed his position as favoring compassionate release, which is currently permitted through our Parole Board. Rather, so far as I can determine, his position is based upon cost avoidance.

This change of position has led him to oppose longstanding policies favoring incarceration of those who have committed some of our most serious crimes. For example, he has buried in his committee House passed legislation to re-impose mandatory minimum sentences on drug dealers who sell drugs which kill those who use the drugs, even though the State House unanimously passed that bill in June 2005.

Our sentencing policy must first be based upon harm to the victims, not the cost of incarceration. The Legislature should carefully define the sentences which fit the crime, not requiring stiff mandatory minimums routinely. However, I think it is critically important that once we state that we are imposing a sentence such as "life sentence without parole" that we do not disrespect the victim by changing that sentence after the fact.

You are on Horsham’s Land Reuse Authority, the board that will decide what happens to the land currently housing the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. What do you think would be the best possible use for that land? Realistically, what do you think will happen? (Source: Ruppel, Paul, “No additional request for land at base,” Intelligencer Mar 3, 2006, p. B5).

We are still awaiting final word from the Department of Defense as to just what portion of the property will be declared "surplus," that is, no longer need for military use. If the DOD declares that is does not need the 8000' runway, there is still a compelling need for its use for Pennsylvania's Air National Guard. I support Governor Rendell in his effort to maintain that resource. However, if that is not to be, we need to think "big," such as locating (or relocating) a a research university on the site in order to encourage development of hi-tech, good paying jobs in this area. One thing is for sure, like many residents of the area and Gov. Rendell, and local Democrats, I will strenuously oppose putting a civilian airport at that site. This battle may not be as easy as it sounds, because the BRAC Commission, as signed into law by President Bush, determined that the future use of the site should be "compatible with a civilian airport."

You were Joe Hoeffel’s campaign treasurer for his senatorial race and some others. Do you think state and federal campaign finance laws should be changed, and if so, how?

Our State’s continued refusal to embrace contribution limits (outside of Philadelphia, where those limits are being challenged) has led to decreasing political competition. Even this year, in the age of the great “pay raise rebellion,” almost all challengers facing incumbents had difficulty breaking $25,000 in the pre-primary fundraising. My opponent, who has served 28 years in the State Senate, started the campaign year with $300,000 in the bank, and the GOP leader in the State Senate raised over $2 million to fend off his primary challenger who raised a tenth of that amount. In both instances, very little of that money came from within the district and even less came from individual constituents.

As a result, a few political fundraisers and special interest groups have dominated Pennsylvania politics. Sometimes, those groups have succeeded in using their prowess in campaign financing to win major policies victories in the state, and sometimes the state politicos have manipulated those groups to secure large donations without intending to deliver “the goods.”

Pennsylvania should adopt the federal rules, which permit ample financing of our federal campaigns, while encouraging solicitation of smaller contributions.

Although you’ve been elected as a township commissioner, most of your political work has been behind the scenes, as a campaign manager or treasurer. Has being a state legislative candidate been a big adjustment?

I think that being a candidate requires a broad range of skills. It is a challenging task, but I have found it most pleasant - with an exception of a few (and, I am pleased to say, very few) dyed-in-the-wool Republican who from time to time have decided that making Pennsylvania "red" requires getting angry at someone they have never met before.

Another difficulty is figuring out just which groups say "you call us, we don't call you." Gee, it would be nice for a first-time candidate to know you are out there.

In 1999 you and three other Upper Dublin Township political leaders sat down and in one evening worked out the redistricting of township wards. If elected to the state senate you will probably be in office when Pennsylvania’s congressional district boundaries are redrawn. What general guidelines would you suggest for this process? (Source: Ruppel, Paul, “U. Dublin ward plan shifts 11 percent of residents,” Intelligencer Nov. 27, 1999, p. 2A.)

I have participated in the drawing township ward and voting district lines in 1992 and 2002. In both instances, I served as the Democratic Party’s representative on the Upper Dublin Ward Realignment Committee, which was divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Each time we were guided by the opinion of our Township Solicitor that the districts could not vary by more than 3%. We considered the actual census counts, including identifying obvious errors (such as streets incorrectly located by the Census Bureau) and post-Census growth in determining just which wards would, at least theoretically, go on the “high side,” and those which would go on the “low side.”

My first principle has always been to avoid dividing neighborhoods. For example, when we began in 1992, one 250-home neighborhood, Aidenn Lair, one of our longest existing, was divided into three separate wards. In 1992, we were able to reduce that division to two wards, and in 2002 we were able to put all of Aidenn Lair into one ward, and, further, into one voting district. This effort followed the mandate of the State Constitution to avoid dividing areas which have common interests whenever possible.

A second principle has been to use boundary lines which are easy to describe to voters. This requires using major streets as boundaries, or community boundaries, such as placing all of Aidenn Lair in one district, while placing the entirety of an adjoining community in another district.

A third principle we followed was to see that incumbents were not dispossessed of their home areas, and, if a concern was raised, areas which they believed to be essential to their effective representation. This was essential because our commissioners are elected in cycles, so that, if they did not have a district with some type of political base, we would be using reapportionment as a means of ousting an incumbent or basically leaving that incumbent with no constituency.

Therefore, once these rules were applied in 2002, about 11% of the population was moved among wards, but only about half of that number had their polling places changed.

The 1992 realignment carried, as I recall unanimously, and the 2002 realignment carried with the votes of 2 of the 3 Republican members of the Board of Commissioners.

Although the 1992 and 2002 changes had the result of shifting neighborhoods from one ward to another, neighboring ward, the basic political geography of Upper Dublin remained intact; while Upper Dublin has grown much less Republican, its Republican plurality still dominates a majority of wards. What has changed in the ground is that Democrats have been able to carry wards with GOP registration pluralities and to be reelected in those wards.

Based on your varied political experience, as an area party leader, township commissioner, campaign manager, and state senate candidate, what do you think can be done to get more people involved in the political process, not only as a voter but also to be more actively involved throughout the year and election cycles?

People who are not involved do not see how government can help them do good things. It is our responsibility to point out just what good government can do and how it can help them. We will never get everyone to participate, but through door-knocking and other direct contacts we can do a better job.

You have stated that you are in favor of merit selection of judges as opposed to electing judges. How would a merit selection system work? Who decides which candidates have more merit? How is this better than public elections? (link to press release)

As an attorney, I have seen just what the inside of judicial campaigns means for Pennsylvanians. It often means those with access to political connections or money win, while well qualified attorneys who would bring diverse backgrounds and experiences to the bench never get a chance, and many decide not to even try. All too often, the present system requires judicial aspirants to assume political identities or shed their political identities to secure a seat on the bench, hardly an example of principle.

The worst aspect of this is judicial fundraising to effect party endorsement, favor in the process or in securing election. Philadelphia may be the worst example of this, but I assure you the financing practices for statewide candidates and most counties are just slightly less blatant.

If we are serious about getting a mixture of political and social philosophies on the bench, to reflect the best of our state and judicial districts, we need merit selection. Most people who have studied this issue, particularly in Pennsylvania, have come to that conclusion. It will not be perfect (for example, I have sometimes felt that the Pennsylvania Bar Association or some local bar association just got it wrong in rating a judicial candidate), but at least it can be made transparent.

There is a tendency to favor merit selection if the electoral process does not get you the results you favor, while to oppose it if the system does favor you.
Senator Greenleaf has flip-flopped on this issue. After I pointed that out, he has now indicated that he may have a hearing on the issue. Finally, after fourteen years of stonewalling, he may have a hearing.

What was your reaction to the news that the Ft. Washington Expo Center was going to be turned into offices for GMAC Residential Mortgage?

The loss of the Expo Center has caused our area to lose an important asset, but, for Upper Dublin taxpayers, GMAC should be tremendous gain in ratables. Plaudits should be given to the Board of Commissioners for helping to secure this valuable addition to the township's tax base.

There are at least three colleges or training centers, Gwynedd Mercy College, Temple Ambler, and Eastern Montco Vo-Tech, as well as the Penn State Research Center, in the 12th state senate district. Is the district able to keep the students who graduate in the area?

We do a poor job in keeping our students here. There needs to be a greater range of job opportunity. As State Senator, I will work on promoting "big ideas designed to capture the imagination of our youth and employers who offer the kind of quality jobs we need. That will take a combination of tax reform, changes in our legal system to make it less costly, and a quality and responsive educational system.

The district crosses county lines, with 9 townships in Montco and 3 in Bucks, and 3 congressional districts, the 6th, the 8th, and the 13th. Does that provide any difficulties?

The district, consisting of 17 municipalities, has significant diversity of interests, but these differences are not so much based on county issues, but on property tax burdens. That issue is one that makes most suburbanites skeptical of the state, which draws a large amount of taxes from our area while returning an ever decreasing amount. GOP leadership has accomplished virtually nothing to reverse this. In fact, my opponent proposed an addition to the basic subsidy which would have basically given every taxpayer what amounted to the cost of a tank of gas (assuming last year's prices were still in effect). Most taxpayers wonder why the state isn't giving them a fair share.

What would be your top priorities if elected?

1. Economic development, including a business climate which will bring about more job growth
2. Legislative reform
3. Making state government work better for less cost, so that we can afford needed social services for our citizens, such as quality health care and education
4. Respect for the rights of all citizens.

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

How many zig zags for Sen. Greenleaf?
1. Abortion
2. State Liquor Stores
3. Mandatory Sentencing
4. Gay Rights
5. Support for State Budget
6. Minimum Wage


eRobin said...

If we are serious about getting a mixture of political and social philosophies on the bench, to reflect the best of our state and judicial districts, we need merit selection. Most people who have studied this issue, particularly in Pennsylvania, have come to that conclusion. It will not be perfect (for example, I have sometimes felt that the Pennsylvania Bar Association or some local bar association just got it wrong in rating a judicial candidate), but at least it can be made transparent.

I liked this answer a lot. After watching Meg Groff lose this time around, I tend to agree with what he said. Of course, he said that watching someone you believe in lose an election would do that to ya'. What do you think about this? I hate to take anything away from voters - even if they are voting on unsecure and unverifiable machines.

AboveAvgJane said...

Like you I hate to take anything away from voters but there is something about judges having to campaign (or pay off party officials) to get on the bench that is unseemly and open to corruption. Judicial decisions should be removed from popular opinion and the sway of money.

On the other hand I don't think lawyers and judicial associations do as good a job of policing themselves as they should. My faith is somewhat restored by the ABA's recent comments on the constitutionality of recent presidential decisions.

I guess I would lean towards merit selection as opposed to election.