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Life and Death in PA Part II

Political Commentary by John Buffington is another installment in a series.  His opinions are entirely his own.  If you have an opinion to share, email the editor

The second battle for the survival of the Commonwealth starts now.

Recently in this space (follow this link) I pleaded for a sufficient voter turnout to expel Governor Corbett. And to deliver a convincing message – that we are not Saudi Arabian peasants, and we object to our health being sacrificed to enrich a rapacious crowd of natural gas drillers.

I got what I wanted on that front. We delivered a “crushing, humiliating, record breaking repudiation” of the incumbent governor. However:

The forces of good health for Pennsylvanians lost on another front. The forces in favor of turning Pennsylvania into a natural gas plantation won convincingly, statewide, on the makeup of the state legislature. Now we face even more powerful pro-plantation majorities in House and Senate than before.

The reason for the ambiguous outcome of the first Battle for the Survival of the Commonwealth is that the forces of good health (and environmental quality, by the way) had allies in the gubernatorial campaign that have other priorities in legislative campaigns. Such as:

An awful lot of people voted to expel Governor Corbett because of his arrogant, dismissive, Scruge-ish attitude toward public education. Devotion to public education is not peculiar to urban liberals; there are conservative Republicans right here in Philadelphia who are appalled by the under-funding of our school district. Moreover:

There are tons more conservative Republicans up-state who are appalled by the current trend away from public education. If they don’t happen to live in one of the zones where the water is already poisoned by fracking, they will have voted on the education issue on the gubernatorial front, but maybe on other issues in legislative races. And:

Then there are the Penn State voters, the real fiscal conservatives, the evangelical anti-pornographers and the people who can’t stand arrogance. (All successful politicians are arrogant, but the best are good at hiding it, like Bill Clinton.)

Penn State voters had lots more against Mr. Corbett than his handling of the Sandusky debacle. He came into the government with a clear animus against state colleges and universities and especially Penn State.

Real fiscal conservatives do not approve of politicians who sign “no new taxes” pledges and then leave money on the table, as Governor Corbett did, while education and infrastructure went begging.

There will have been some votes against Mr. Corbett from folks who are particularly offended by the use of state computers by state employees on state time to transmit pornography. It does speak to neglect of duty by the then Attorney General.

Finally on the arrogance thing, Tom Corbett is no more arrogant then Ed Rendell, say. but Mr. Rendell is a master of coalition building and delights in it. And he has an avuncular style that hides the rapacious jackal that hides beneath the surface of nearly every wildly successful politician. Mr. Corbett will undoubtedly do just fine going into litigation in private practice and letting his predator teeth show.

This variegated group of interests, on top of hard core portion of regular Democrats that turn out when there’s no presidential campaign, was sufficient to turn out Tom Corbett, but it is not a coalition. The coalition needs to be gathered now. Immediately. Because it is imperative that anti-fracking forces influence the selection of key players in the Wolf administration. If we wait to get organized until after inauguration day we will face a cabinet that expects to implement Gov. Wolf’s plan to promote a 5% extraction tax and maximize that revenue to support public education.

So, at best, public education would improve so that new graduates would understand that they need to move out of state before they become serfs of a gigantic natural gas plantation with sickening water and air.

But, realistically, that won’t happen. if public health advocates and environmentalists don’t come to terms with public education advocates, and Governor Wolf’s plan goes to a state legislature that is controlled by pro-fracking forces in BOTH houses, and health and environmental groups either oppose the plans of sit on their hands, the Wolf plan will fail and the legal context for fracking will remain as is. So the slide toward a vast uninhabitable field of natural gas wells will continue – but the pace will escalate. Because the richer the natural gas exploiters get, the more they will spend on elections and lobbying.

Pennsylvania’s fracking disaster cannot be stopped in the near future. If all of the various virtuous interests pull together, the best that we can achieve, for now, is mitigation.

I expect that the management of the natural gas production companies is the usual assortment of MBAs, finance experts, and general purpose opportunists. The commonality among them would be avarice.

The commonality of the virtuous forces that need to become a political coalition is entirely different. Nearly everybody needs to make a living of course but teachers, nurses, governmental and public health activists and environmental scientists choose to sacrifice the prospects of riches for a sense of mission. And family farmers. Hardly anybody does small farming because they have to anymore; they love their land and their role. Even doctors. The average physician may have a bigger gross income than most of the rest of the virtuous, but if you adjust for the cost of education, insurance, and interest, its not that much out of line.

That’s what we have to build on. The politics of escalating catastrophe, of course. But also the politics of selflessness.

There is time to turn this around, but not a lot. I am going to contact everybody that I can think of who might be an important player, sympathetic to standing up to the destruction of our Commonwealth. Then I’ll be back in this space with some specific suggestions for prompt action. Please let me know if you want to help.

About the author: John Buffington is a retired lawyer living in Frankford. His undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia was in Government. For several years he was a Director of the Conservation Council of Virginia, a coalition of 43 different organizations with environmental quality as their primary or a secondary mission, ranging from the Sierra Club to the Farm Bureau and the League of Women Voters. Subsequently he was a director of a similar coalition, the Committee of Pennsylvania Environmental Groups. Those experiences informed the organizing ideas in this article.