Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Russ Diamond's swan song

Russ Diamond dreamed the improbable dream.

The dream ended Tuesday when he woke up to the realization that he will not be governor of Pennsylvania. Not that he had much of a chance in the first place. But Diamond's remarkable one-year run in the spotlight has left a lasting mark on Pennsylvania politics.

Politics is a contact sport. The defending champions and the perennial opposition don't like competition. Tuesday was the last day for minor-party and independent candidates to submit nominating petitions to have their names placed on the Nov. 7 ballot. Diamond gathered more than 37,000 signatures, but fell far short of the 67,000 names he needed.

Money is the engine that drives politics. That's why Ed Rendell has been so successful. He has the ability to raise large amounts of money, mostly from corporate fat cats, labor unions and the casino industry. Lynn Swann also has the ability to raise money, but to a much lesser extent than Rendell, who is sitting on a $20 million campaign war chest as he prepares to buy his way to a second term as Pennsylvania governor.

Diamond didn't have any money. He went right to the people. He had to ask, cajole and beg 37,000 registered voters to sign his nominating petitions. And Diamond had no political favors to entice supporters. He couldn't promise them any cushy state jobs or sweetheart contracts.

Rendell and Swann have scores of paid workers who can gather signatures on their behalf. And they didn't need that many names to begin with. State law requires minor-party and independent candidates to collect 2 percent of the total ballots cast for the highest vote-getter in the last statewide election. That would be state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who received a record 3.4 million votes in 2004, which was a presidential election year.

Major party candidates like Rendell and Swann need only 2,000 names to get on the ballot. Of course it's not fair, but when the two monopoly political parties write the rules, who said it has to be fair? Elections in Pennsylvania are a private party and it's invitation only.

If you're an independent voter or a member of the Green Party, Socialist Party, Constitution Party or Libertarian Party, you might as well leave Pennsylvania. You don't matter to the political party bosses who handpick the candidates.

Before July 7, 2005, when the Pennsylvania legislature gave itself and the governor a middle-of-the-night pay raise, Diamond was a small business owner in Lebanon County whose only previous political involvement was a losing campaign for Congress on the Libertarian ticket.

Diamond was so agitated with the flagrant disregard of the Pennsylvania constitution by the politicians who took an oath to uphold it that he set up a Web site called PACleanSweep. The rest is history.

The goal was to keep the pay raise issue alive and recruit candidates to run against incumbent state legislators. At one point, more than 100 candidates had joined the PACleanSweep movement. More than 50 ran against incumbents in the May 2006 primary and at least seven won their races. Nearly 50 PACleanSweep candidates will be on the ballot this November, although PACleanSweep itself may not be around by the time the election rolls around.

Internal bickering between Diamond and others on the nonprofit group's 10-member board led to lawsuits and an effort to disband the organization. Diamond either left the group or was forced out (depends on whom you talk to) when he announced this spring that he was going to mount an independent run for governor.

Although he has filed court papers to dissolve PACleanSweep, Diamond told the Associated Press he intends to remain politically active. "Time will tell what's able to rise from the ashes" of PACleanSweep, Diamond said.

Diamond could still have an impact on the Pennsylvania governor's race. There are at least 37,000 Pennsylvania residents who are not happy with the choice between Rendell and Swann and would have preferred a third option. There are many other disenchanted voters who support Diamond's efforts to clean up the mess in Harrisburg created by both major parties.

A Diamond endorsement of Swann could help the GOP challenger gain some ground on the heavily favored Rendell. While Swann and Diamond may differ on some issues, Diamond's reform platform is a lot closer to what Swann has been saying than Rendell's "business as usual" re-election theme.

Pennsylvania voters want change. They've seen what four years of Rendell has brought: higher taxes, corporate welfare and runaway state spending.

Swann's campaign people should be on the phone today to Diamond to work out a way to find a meaningful role on the Swann team for the political maverick who has captured the voters' imagination without money or established party machinery.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com