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Harrisburg needs ordinary citizens who value democracy. Together they can help restore integrity in state government.Harrisburg needs ordinary citizens who value democracy. Together they can help restore integrity in state government.Edit

By Mark P. Widoff

I came to Harrisburg in 1971 as a young lawyer full of idealism. Like so many young Americans at the time, I was inspired during the JFK years to serve my country, my state and my community in public service.

I had already served in the Peace Corps and in Community Legal Services in Philadelphia when I arrived in Harrisburg to serve in state government. Although I left state government in 1979, I never lost my interest in public service.

Unfortunately, the years since then have tested my faith and idealism. The stench that has risen out of our ornate Capitol has been far worse than the sausage that political scientists talk about when they lecture about the legislative process.

The problem is age-old: the longer the "public servants" are in Harrisburg, the more they confuse their own interest with the public interest.

Our system was never designed to support career politicians. It was designed to tap into the willingness of leaders to serve the public for a limited time, and then return to their communities and their careers outside of politics.

Our founders assumed that regular elections would periodically send home those politicians who tarried too long in elected office. They did not anticipate the "scientific" methods now available to reapportion districts, manipulate public opinion polls, and overwhelm political opponents with huge sums of money provided by special interests.

So, the politicians, especially legislators, are so well entrenched they believe they should stay in office as long as they wish - a classic definition of an oligarchy, not a representative democracy.

But there is hope today in Harrisburg, thanks to a handful of heroes who risked everything to fight the prevailing power structure. They have endured ridicule. They have endured poverty. They have endured the hatred and the threats of people with power and influence who drafted legislation in secret and forced votes on this legislation in the middle of the night.

Somehow their idealism and belief in democracy keep them going, and they keep fighting the entrenched leadership in Pennsylvania state government with their own style of leadership.

When the Star Chamber procedure of enacting laws in Harrisburg resulted in a middle-of-the-night pay raise for state officials, ordinary citizens finally rallied to vote into office the largest number of freshmen legislators in anyone's memory and voted out a sitting Supreme Court justice for the first time in history.

These heroes who never lost faith in the ideal of democracy need our help right now. They cannot take the next step alone.

Now it's time for those who have been sitting on the sidelines to join the fight to clean up our state government and make it the best in America. Civic leaders at every level and leaders of business and the professions need to join ordinary citizens and become a public part of this battle to reestablish Pennsylvania as a place of democratic idealism and hope.

The task we face today is much harder than repealing the pay raise. We must rebuild the structure of state government to make it much more difficult for a privileged oligarchy to spend other people's money in consolidating its own power, wealth and prestige.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to reevaluate our state's constitutional structure and the assumptions underlying it. This will require some heavy lifting and some hard, concentrated attention to provisions that need revision. Some need revision because they simply no longer reflect the reality of modern government, and others because our state's Supreme Court has repeatedly chosen to ignore their plain meaning and intent, shamefully elevating the end as more important than the means with the self-serving example that judges need pay raises, so who cares how they get them!

How we elect our representatives, how we choose our judges, how we clarify and strengthen the procedures for assuring integrity and openness in the proceedings of our elected officials and our judges all need study, reflection, debate and action.

If there are men and women who still believe in our democratic ideals and refuse to concede to the cynics, now is the time to come forward. Support the reformers. Demand a constitutional convention to reform Pennsylvania state government and work to make it successful.

If not you, who will prevail in the never-ending battle to make our democracy honest, real and vibrant? And who will be to blame for the future abuses and outrages that will cost all of us so dearly, if we do not join together to reestablish our core democratic values?


  • Mark P. Widoff was the first consumer advocate of Pennsylvania. He is

interim chair of Democracy Rising PA (www.democracyrisingpa.com).

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