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Perry on Politics: Filling the Democratic vacuum

Published by Mike Pound on .

Hillary Clinton. (Associated Press photo)Hillary Clinton. (Associated Press photo)

By James M. Perry

She seems inevitable. Poll numbers show that Hillary Rodham Clinton is supported by anywhere from 63 per cent to 73 percent of Democratic voters. "That makes her the most dominant front-runner at this stage of of a Presidential contest in the (Democratic) Party's modern history," notes Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker.

But others in recent years have had big leads too, and all of them at one time or another "faltered." Mr. Lizza ticks them off. Walter Mondale was challenged by Gary Hart in 1984. Al Gore was challenged by Bill Bradley in 2000. and Hillary, ahead by 30 points, was challenged and ultimately defeated by Barack Obama in 2008. And don't forget outspoken Howard Dean, who challenged everybody in 2004.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does politics," Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist, told Mr. Lizza.

What Mr. Lizza fails to note is that, with the possible exception of Mr. Dean, Mr. Hart, Mr. Bradley, and Mr. Obama were serious, credible presidential candidates. Mr. Hart, in fact, if it hadn't been for monkey business with women other than his wife, could easily have won the nomination.

Mr. Lizza says Hillary's likely opponents include the outgoing governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, 51, a smooth operator, but barely known outside Maryland; former Virginia one-term senator Jim Webb, 68, who has barely been heard from since he walked away from his job last year; and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 73-year-old Socialist from tiny Vermont.

Mr. Webb, a combat Marine and a former secretary of the Navy, is a very interesting, unorthodox politician. But he's probably too old. Mr. Sanders is even older, and a Socialist to boot, though he's really just another liberal Democrat.

Hillary will be a 69-year-old grandmother in 2016, and, surely, a credible challenge would, almost necessarily, come from a younger man or woman. Mr. Obama was younger (47), and beat her in the primaries in the only tough, close election she's ever run.

Mr. O'Malley, then, is the only one of Mr. Lizza's possible challengers that seems to fit the bill. He's young, vigorous, and smart. He might just be another Gary Hart, without the monkey business (he worked for Mr. Hart in Iowa in 1984). His problem might be that he raised taxes in his eight years as governor of Maryland, and his lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown, seeking to succeed him, was hammered for that by his successful GOP opponent, Larry Hogan, in a huge upset.

Gov. Jerry Brown of California, easily re-elected Nov. 4, would be a great challenger, if he were just 20 years younger. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, easily re-elected too, seems grumpy and out of sorts these days. Democrats just don't cotton to him.

Mr. Lizza failed to mention her, but if liberal Democrats had their druthers, they would love to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts challenge Hillary in the primaries. She insists she's not interested.

Anita Dunn is right. Politics abhors a vacuum. Somebody will challenge Hillary.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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Manchin-Toomey amendment nixed

Published by Tracie Mauriello on .

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)

Tonight's Senate approval of a daycare funding bill better protects small children from abuse at facilities but leaders of a key committee blocked similar protections for older children.

Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-Va., had teamed an amendment that would have cut federal funding to states that refuse to strengthen requirements for background checks for educators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, coaches and others who work in schools.

The bipartisan duo tried to amend the bill on the floor, bypassing the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, whose leaders prefer to address the problem by expanding schools' access to federal databases rather than penalize districts that don't do enough.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and its ranking Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, blocked the amendment, which required unanimous consent to be brought to the floor.

Mr. Harkin said the issues are too complicated to be pushed through without an opportunity for committee debate and amendments, which he implied could be significant.

Meanwhile, Mr. Alexander said the Toomey-Manchin proposal would usurp control of local governments and school districts.

It would "put the U.S. Department of Education and the United States Congress – who currently have about a 10 percent approval rating – in charge of making every single child in every single school safer than the local school board can, than the local legislator can, than the governor can, than the community can, than the parents can," Mr. Alexander said during floor debate last week.

Mr. Toomey said state and local governments don't have the authority to protect their schools from districts in other states that knowingly pass suspected abusers along.

"When a teacher leaves one state to commit the atrocities on a new set of victims there is nothing that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can do to make it illegal for [the former employer] to send a letter of recommendation. The powers of Pennsylvania end at the borders of Pennsylvania, and that's the case with all 50 states," he said. "This requires a federal solution."

Mr. Toomey tried a combination of persuasion and legislative maneuvers to get the amendment included in the bill but was blocked at every turn. The Morning Call of Allentown reported that he placed a legislative "hold" – or a secret, formal objection – on the childcare bill after the HELP committee sat on his own child-predator legislation.

Proponents of the childcare bill were able to overcome the hold with a 60-vote supermajority.

Few opportunities remain this year for Mr. Manchin and Mr. Toomey to resurrect their legislation but they are expected to renew their effort in 2015.

They want to keep school districts from hiring anyone ever convicted of violent or sexual crimes or crimes against children such as abuse, neglect or pornography. Their proposal also would prohibit districts from hiring people convicted within the past five years of felony assault or drug offenses.

Most states and local school boards already require background checks but some aren't as extensive as Mr. Manchin and Mr. Toomey's proposal would require. They want districts to use the Federal Bureau of Investigation's fingerprint system and sex offender registries, among other databases.

Pennsylvania requires background investigations to include checks of state and federal criminal records along with child abuse records maintained by the state Department of Welfare.

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Report: Shale industry throwing money around Harrisburg

Published by Mike Pound on .

Julia Rendleman/Post-GazetteJulia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Let's take a moment to meet the new leadership of our state's legislature. And to check out a few numbers that could portend a rough time for the guy who will be the next governor.

The first number? Try $49 million, the amount of money spent by the energy industry on lobbying and political contributions in Pennsylvania between 2007 and 2014. That figure comes from a new site, Marcellusmoney.org, and a just-completed study by the site's operator, Common Cause PA, the non-partisan group that promotes integrity in government.

The new majority leadership in the state House and Senate reflects two shifts – an ideological one towards the right, led by baseball bat-wielding garbage guy Sen. Scott Wagner, and a geographic one, from suburban Philly to the central and western portions of the state – in other words, shale country.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the gentlemen who find themselves among the legislature's leadership also have been the recipients of some hefty checks from drillers. New Senate majority leader Jake Corman? About $90,000, good for 14th on the Common Cause PA list. New Speaker of the House Mike Turzai? About $272,000, the fourth-highest total on the list. New House majority leader Dave Reed? About $179,000, or sixth on the list. And Sen. Joe Scarnati, who held his seat as president pro tem? He took in about $500,000, good for third on the list.

Who had the best seat on the gravy train? That would be outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett, who received just under $2.1 million from the industry in those seven years.

It's pretty clear that the GOP has been the primary target of the industry's efforts to win friends and influence people, but Democrats are bringing in some significant cash as well. Neither Jack Wagner nor Dan Onorato have run for a state level office in several years, but both make the list for six-figure totals over the life of the study, good for fifth on the list for Mr. Onorato and 10th for Mr. Wagner.

The $139,000 taken in by State Sen. Tim Solobay didn't help him much on election day – despite having in the ninth-highest total, Mr. Solobay lost his re-election bid. Sen. Jay Costa just won re-election as the Senate minority leader he's received almost $80,000, good for 16th on the list.

And not even the office of our governor-elect is free of energy industry money. Katie McGinty, who sought the Democratic nomination for governor in the spring and will serve as Tom Wolf's chief of staff, received a total of nearly $73,000 – that's 17th on the list. And at No. 20 is Mr. Wolf himself; the new governor-to-be accepted more than $53,000 in donations from the industry he promised to tax.

What does this mean? It means we probably shouldn't be surprised that Pennsylvania is the only shale-energy state that doesn't levy an extraction tax of any kind.

And even if Mr. Corman hadn't told the AP that he wouldn't want to impose a severance tax if it endangered the state's hopes for a Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, it means we should be even less surprised when Mr. Wolf struggles to enact the single most concrete promise from his successful campaign – to fund education in the commonwealth with – hello – a severance tax.

It's probably too soon to write off Mr. Wolf's chances with the new General Assembly – but it might not be a bad idea for the incoming governor to have a Plan B in mind.

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You say you want a revolution?

Published by Mike Pound on .

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (Associated Press photo)State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (Associated Press photo)

Republicans won the five available state Senate seats on Tuesday, as part of a sweep that seemed to include nearly every contested race – with the notable exception of the contest between The Battling Toms – across the country.

So everything should be happy in Republiland, right?

Wrong.

First up on the agenda of the reinforced majority party appears to be a fight over which branch of the party holds leadership positions. The Associated Press tells us that Sen. Jake Corman of Centre County is expected to challenge Sen. Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County for the position of Senate majority leader, a seat that Mr. Pileggi has held for eight years.

What's behind the challenge, which was confirmed by two other state senators this week? It's a notion by the party's conservative wing that the Senate, as led by Mr. Pileggi, hasn't done enough in a couple of areas: overhauling public pension benefits and ending the state-run monopoly on sales of wine and liquor. The more conservative folks also say they're unhappy about the influence that the more moderate Republicans from the Philly region assert on the Senate.

This has been brewing for a while. On Sept. 29, Mr. Pileggi copied each member of the Senate a memo sent to him by Sen. Scott Wagner of York County; in that letter, Mr. Wagner, a conservative businessman who handily won a full term this week, said he had concluded that "it is not in the best interest of Pennsylvanians for (Mr. Pileggi) to continue as Senate majority leader." Mr. Wagner accused Mr. Pileggi of not allowing Mr. Corbett any legislative victories and complained that the majority leader was too beholden to labor.

Instead of responding to Mr. Wagner, as the York senator requested, Mr. Pileggi released the letter to the entire Senate – and here we are, poised to watch a fight for control of the Senate we thought Republicans already had.

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The GOP gets a crack at the U.S. Senate

Published by Mike Pound on .

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky.,Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP photo)

Mitch McConnell says we're "hungry for new leadership." And we "want a reason to be hopeful."

Whether or not the man who will likely be the next U.S. Senate majority leader is correct in his assessment, the impetus behind it is – the Republicans have taken over the Senate.

The Democrats began the day with a 55-45 majority in the chamber (including two independents). They've ended it in the minority, after Republicans flipped available seats Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and, as we noted much earlier in the evening, West Virginia. And there could be more: late returns from Alaska are expected to show a win for Dan Sullivan and Bill Cassidy is expected to win a Dec. 6 runoff against Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

We have new leadership, yes. It's not as clear that means we have a reason to be hopeful. The federal government has been stuck in neutral with a split between the houses on Capitol Hill; will a solidified Republican majority make any difference with a Democrat still entrenched in the White House? Can we count on progress when members of Mr. McConnell's own party won't pledge their support to the new majority?

With one third of voters who backed Republican candidates professing disappointment – or even anger – with the GOP, it may be that Mr. McConnell doesn't have much time to figure it out.

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