Monday, August 28, 2006

An Interview with David Slavick (PA 109th House District)

The 109th state house district contains all of Columbia County except for Benton Borough, Benton Township, Locust Township (part), Franklin Township, Centralia Township, Cleveland Township, and Conyngham Township.

David Slavick is the Democratic candidate for the 109th state house district (Columbia County). Slavick, who was raised in the district, went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a current member of the Berwick Borough Planning Commission. He has extensive experience in economic development and legal reform, including work with the UN in Serbia and Montenegro. His opponent is current Republican incumbent Rep. David Millard. Slavick recently agreed to take part in an email interview.

You’ve worked abroad and traveled quite a bit. Will you be content to “stay down on the farm once you’ve seen Paree?”

Not surprisingly that’s a question I have gotten before, but I must admit that despite my travels I am a hometown boy at heart. Actually, my work in Serbia was one of the major reasons I began getting my feet wet in local politics. While helping draft trade legislation at the USAID/WTO Accession Project for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I had the opportunity to work with talented and dynamic people who were in their twenties like myself. I realized that unlike in the United States, in the FRY the circumstances of regime change and of attenuated war had created a perfect storm where the “next generation” was leading today. The energy and enthusiasm of the twenty-somethings leading the charge for reform was something I fully embraced and I carry with me today.

The experience of working in an environment where young talented people could take leadership roles, and help achieve noticeable progress in the public sector, was indescribable. The only domestic experience that I think could be comparable is that of the culture of the technology industry during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. The culture of the public sector in the U.S., with some notable exceptions, has been one where twenty-something employees have been relegated to rank and file positions. Having the opportunity to achieve the level of responsibility Serbian public sector officials held in their late-twenties would take thirty-plus years in our country. The realization that we in the United States were squandering the untapped resource of young leaders pushed me to stay in Berwick and to fight for a more progressive public culture in Pennsylvania.

What lessons have you learned from your international work that can be transferred to representing Columbia County?

There are two lessons, in particular, that I learned abroad that will serve the people of Columbia County. First, and most important, was to measure the public achievements of a government by how they use creative solutions to overcome the burdens of scarcity, rather than, by the ability of a government to undertake majestic public works in a time of abundance. The second, lesson I learned while working in Serbia, was that in order to ensure that a government is accountable to its citizens we not only need to have a new generation of leaders who are brave enough to stake out a progressive agenda for reform, but also to be brave enough to achieve their political goals through the integrity of their diligence; not the corrupt practices of their predecessors.

While working in Serbia, I saw how young leaders of all political parties, worked in a united way, to tackle the problem of improving a public infrastructure decimated by war. This unity came from the shared understanding that progress transcended their political affiliations, and from the common understanding that each of their skills would be needed to stake a claim in a globally integrated future. One way that these young leaders overcame the burdens of scarcity was by finding practical applications for new technologies as a means to improve public infrastructure.

For example, in Belgrade, shortages in public funds for infrastructure development made installing parking meters unfeasible, leaving an incredible parking shortage in the center of the city. The city government was caught in a Catch 22 situation, where it could neither afford to lose parking revenues, nor could it afford to pay for the extensive policing of parking infractions. Belgrade’s young urban planners overcame this obstacle by instituting a parking payment system that allowed its users to pay parking costs by debiting airtime credits from their mobile phones. These ambitious new leaders took advantage of the fact that mobile phones had flourished in the post-Milosevic era, as many landlines still lay in the rubble resulting from the NATO. Working together, with a shared vision, these young leaders used creative means to overcome the problem of scarcity, and while doing so, resisted the temptation to abuse the public trust by making parking fee collection a “pet project” for a friendly contractor, as could have been the case in the earlier days of post-communist Yugoslavia.

Based upon my experiences in Serbia, and what I see happening politically in the United States, I believe we need a new generation of leaders to help dislodge the rampant political corruption that is affecting not only Pennsylvania, but our entire nation. In order for places like Columbia County to have the agility to overcome the crises of scarcity that exist today, the next generation of leaders in Pennsylvania state government must embrace a mindset that makes decisions based upon a forward-thinking vision and the ability to come up with creative solutions.

I understand how vital this mindset will be. I feel that we as a nation are making a transition from a resource abundant country, to one that is increasingly dealing with issues of scarcity in nearly all sectors of society. As Americans, each day we read in our newspapers about yet another crisis of scarcity in our country, ranging from the availability of health insurance to funding for state-funded pensions. In my representation of Columbia County, I will embrace the lesson I learned from the young leaders in Serbia, that only through a thorough rejection of the excesses of our political predecessors could progress truly move forward. That means that more than their mutual addiction to campaign donations from special interests must unite both major parties.

Like in Serbia, I believe it must be ambitious young leaders in the Democratic Party that step up and lead our state back to a place where it is truly accountable to its citizens. However, new Democratic leaders running for office in Pennsylvania must lead the charge against corruption by resisting the temptation of accepting campaign contributions from corporate interest groups. This makes winning much more difficult. Judging by the last general election, incumbent Republican David Millard, will likely be funded by the HRCC and a wide range of corporate interests to the tune of over $100,000, and unfortunately for him he will likely need every penny of it. This is because like the college students who protested during Milosevic’s final days, who stood in the face of police who were paid to quash their resistance, I do not fear any opposition who cannot win on the battleground of ideas, but must buy their support to win. Despite the overwhelming disparity in campaign funds, I feel that there is strength to be had in keeping my promise not to accept any corporate contributions and by earning the support of the voters the old fashioned way. Like anyone in a struggle who is out-gunned, but not out-smarted, you must go with your strengths and I realize that I couldn’t maintain my integrity while going blow-for-blow in raising corporate PAC donations against an incumbent who is already hardened by the culture of corruption in Harrisburg.

Locally, achieving sustainable solutions to challenges affecting Columbia County and throughout Pennsylvania will require that new leaders push for policies that take advantage of the local strengths of our diverse state. For instance, I believe that in Columbia County our natural and human resources make us a prime candidate to be a thriving “exporter” of renewable energies. Despite the limitless possibilities to capitalize on alternative energy production for Columbia County, our current Representative David Millard, has not embraced this vision for our county’s future. His voting past correlates to his receiving numerous large donations from political action committees funded by the coal and oil industries.

Last year, Millard voted against the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, that would expand renewable energy investment in Pennsylvania. Mr. Millard has abused the public trust by allowing his personal political interests, to overshadow the profound economic benefit this policy could have on Columbia County. Millard prioritizes the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of the needs of Columbia County’s workers, manufacturers, and farmers. This type of shortsighted and self-interested thinking has caused many of the local problems throughout the state. Whether or not Pennsylvania’s current problems will repeat themselves in the future will depend on whether the next generation of leaders has the courage to expel the influence of corporate money from our State capital.

You support public pensions shifting to a 2 tiered retirement system with new employees getting lower benefits. Would you be willing to accept a lower pension yourself if you are elected?

Yes, I would be willing to accept a lower pension, as my feelings regarding legislative pensions are analogous to those in other areas of the state government. I believe in fiscally responsible government, as well as, the idea that we need to uphold the promises given to employees when they began their employment. I think one way of ensuring our state government is fiscally solvent and to deliver on our promises, is to offer pensions to new legislators that are in line with the financial realities of today.

Would your proposed adoption legislation include a termination of the father’s rights to avoid the kind of a adoption disasters we’ve read about where a father decides to sue for custody of an already-adopted child.

This question addresses one of the many issues that make our current adoption system as cumbersome as it is today. I have met numerous adopting families that have helped me become more informed regarding their personal experiences with the adoption system in Pennsylvania. One story stood out in my mind that will at least, in part, answer your question. The woman I spoke with was attempting to adopt a five-year old boy whose father was a convicted arsonist, and was currently on parole for a child molestation conviction. The woman alerted me to the fact that under Pennsylvania law, a father who because of his status as a convicted child molester, is not legally allowed to be close to children. The father retained the right to obstruct the boy’s foster parents from adopting him. In this case my opinion regarding the father’s rights is quite clear-cut. Convicted child molesters should lose their say in who gains custody of their biological child. As for the many other instances where this could be a problem, I am exploring these issues by consulting with several long-time social service providers.

You are making use of social networking computer programs like MySpace and Friendster. Are you in favor of any kind of regulation on the use of these and similar programs?

In addition, you are using a lot of high-tech campaign methods – a blog, social networking, interactive maps. What percentage of your prospective constituents regularly use these tools?

Despite being a fairly rural area, Columbia County has a broadband penetration rate of well over 24%. This figure does not include the thousands of people in the county who access the Internet from work. This is a vast untapped marketplace of ideas, where candidates can gain personal access to voters who are desperate for alternatives to the status quo. It is vital that we give those voters the information they need to make an informed decision. One thing that I’ve learned about the voters in Columbia County, while door knocking for the last several months, is that they are just as savvy as voters anywhere else and desperately want to be treated as such by their politicians. I’m hoping to fill that gap by giving them the ability to access many of the same campaign tools available to urban voters. As for social networking programs, like MySpace there are over 3,000 MySpace members in the Columbia County area between the ages of 18-35. This is the largest market of untapped potential voters anywhere in the county, yet in reaching out to younger voters, candidates must treat them as equals. This has not occurred in the past.

I believe that 99.9% of the regulation of what a child accesses on the Internet should be regulated by the child’s parents. We should not succumb to the “nanny state” in order to protect parents who refuse to be diligent in protecting their children from content on the Internet they find offensive. I agree with the American diplomat, Clare Booth Luce’s quote that "censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there."

The 109th house seat has seen a lot of upheaval in recent years. The current incumbent was elected in a special election and the previous representative switched parties and went on to the state senate. What kind of stability could you offer?

One thing is for sure; I will not switch political parties like our current state senator has. I believe that if a politician in either party sees aspects of the party structure they dislike, they should be brave enough to promote reform from within. If your beliefs change drastically enough that you want to change parties, you have a duty to inform the voters that you are going to change parties before the primary election, not after you have been elected. I feel that abusing the support of the loyal voters of one party, while knowing you were going to crossover to the other side of the aisle, is fundamentally dishonest.

The 109th district contains Bloomsburg University and 35% of your constituents have some kind of higher education. Are you able to keep the Bloomsburg graduates or do many of them leave the area?

Bloomsburg University has done our area a great service by helping bring new blood in our county. However, we have a terrible record for retaining our college educated young professionals. In our county, people work hard to send their kids to college, but the unfortunate reality is that their children will have to relocate for a job. This is due to the shrinking number of white-collar jobs in our area, a trend that must end in order to retain our young people, and to provide a sustainable future for everyone in the county.

It is interesting to look at demographics. Roughly half of the population in your district is between 25 and 64 years old, with 15% over 65 and 35% under 25. What would that mean for your legislative priorities?

The broad age range in our county requires that we insure the integrity of current lifestyle while planning for the future. Our demographics have created a difficult situation for funding the local schools. We have a high student population in our schools in comparison with the number of people paying property taxes and because of this situation a heavy property tax burden is falling on our senior citizen population. Despite being a senior citizen, representing 15% of the population, they represent as much as 30% of the homeowner population in many school districts in our county. This reality makes funding our schools a difficult task, we are literally making the decision to shut down excellent performing schools in order to ensure that we do not tax our senior citizens out of house and home. This is an unacceptable situation, one that requires that when elected I push for property tax legislation that helps areas move more smoothly through these demographic shifts.

What aspect of your work on the Berwick Borough Planning Commission are you most proud of?

I am proud of all the work we have done on the planning commission in the past year, but am most proud of our work on the Patriot Metals factory in the Berwick Industrial Development Association complex. Patriot Metals capitalized on an opportunity created by a monetary grant they received through Gov. Rendell’s office. This expanded their product line and employed many more workers. We helped capitalize on Patriot Metal’s entrepreneurial initiative by working through some difficult zoning and land transfer issues to ensure that we have more good-paying jobs in Berwick. Having the opportunity to help local entrepreneur’s make their goals a reality is something I am truly proud of.

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

Why is this race important to people beyond your district?

First, it has long reaching implications as a litmus test for where our country is headed politically. Columbia County is primarily rural, voted for Bush overwhelmingly in 2004, yet is traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Currently there is only a 300-voter registration margin between Democrats and being the majority party in the county, like much of "Red America" its tipping to the Democratic Party, it merely needs some momentum and some outside funding assistance to become a Democratic stronghold again.

We have the momentum, now we need the outside assistance. If Pennsylvania counties in the "T" become Democratic seats now, we as Democrats will be well served in creating an environment where a Democrat can become President in 2008. That's why all eyes are on the Santorum-Casey race, Pennsylvania has typically been a microcosm for our electoral college and truly tells a great deal about who can win in a presidential race. Winning this seat could be a huge psychological victory for the Democratic Party, we would have the opportunity to say "We can win in rural areas on the issues, we have a dynamic farm team of young leaders that spreads beyond the urban and suburban areas, and we can win everywhere."

Finally, this race is not only a referendum on the state of the American political climate, but will help determine if Democrat's can win on ideas like alternative energy, protecting the middle class, and fighting corruption. Winning this race will not only be an indicator of whether a Democrat can win in 2008, but is a battle to fill the White House with a Democratic candidate that has more in common with FDR than Joe Lieberman.

My thanks to David Slavick for taking the time to answer these questions!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You mean Slavick who went to law school, took the bar exam and failed at least twice and can't get a job in the private sector and wants to represent us in Harrisburg?