Pennsylvania’s newly signed voter identification law is an attempt to disenfranchise minority, poor and older voters; and block President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, contend a number of local officials.
Conversely, the local tea party applauded the measure.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed H.B. 934 Wednesday evening, just after the state House approved it, making the commonwealth the sixteenth state to pass such legislation.
“This is nothing more than an attempt by Republican leadership to keep seniors, minorities and low-income citizens from their constitutional right to vote,” said Rep. Ron Waters, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, who voted against the law. “Pennsylvania will have the distinction of moving backwards with this discriminatory bill. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it will eventually be overturned at taxpayer expense.”
The bill, which passed in the Senate last week, was approved by the House in a 104-88 vote, dividing members along partisan lines.
It will not affect voting in the April 24 primary, but thereafter all Pennsylvanians to show photo identification before voting.
Corbett said the legislation is meant to prevent voter fraud.
“I am signing this bill because it protects a sacred principle, one shared by every citizen of this nation,” Corbett said in a statement. “That principle is: one person, one vote. It sets a simple and clear standard to protect the integrity of our elections.”
State Rep. Rosita Youngblood scoffed at that notion.
“Give us proof of recent instance of voter fraud,” she said, predicting “chaos” at the polls. “To me the whole crux of this is this — this is a format to stop Barack Obama. Look at the states that have passed this draconian measure, either the legislature is Republican controlled or the governor is Republican.”
“They want to make sure that Barack Obama is a one-term president,” he said. “This measure violates not only the Constitution, but our own state constitution that says elections must be free and clear and without government interference. This is the same as instituting a poll tax or requiring literacy tests, and will have a detrimental impact on voters.”
Not everyone opposed the law.
“Voter fraud … is a big problem in our state — especially in urban areas like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” said Teri Adams, president of the Independence Tea Party Association. “We can no longer tolerate imposters voting for dead people, or fraudulent votes being cast by individuals claiming to live in non-existent residences,” said Adams.
Already the law faces the threat of legal action.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams was among those who voted against the bill when it went to the Senate last week, and said the fight against the new law is not over. Opponents may take their fight to the courts. In Wisconsin, a judge issued an injunction against a similar law in that state; and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder moved to block voter ID bills in Texas and South Carolina.
“While I’m disappointed that the state House has continued this march toward voter disenfranchisement, the battle is not over. The Constitutional right to vote is too important to institute disingenuous hurdles at the ballot box, period,” said Williams. “States that already have gone down this road have seen the error of their ways, as injunctions in Wisconsin and Texas demonstrate. There will be a lawsuit filed on behalf of those voters, who, though today eligible, tomorrow would not have their vote counted once HB 934 is enacted.”
Acceptable forms of identification include a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver license photo ID, a military ID, valid U.S. passport, county or municipal employee identification, college ID or personal care home ID.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said the organization is planning legal action against the law.
Some citizens will lose the vote if this becomes law,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But those who want to block the vote should not be fooled into thinking that this is over once the governor signs it. The next stop for this bad idea is in a court of law, and we are prepared to challenge it vigorously. Our legal team is currently mapping a strategy for overturning this voter suppression bill. In the week since the Senate passed the bill, the phone calls and emails from citizens who are concerned they or a loved one will lose the vote have increased dramatically. We are confident that we can show how this bill will disenfranchise citizens.”
Implementing the new law is expected to cost about $4 million, money that would be better spent elsewhere, said Waters.
“It astounds me that there is no money for public education, colleges, universities, the disabled or poor — but there is money for a non-existent voter fraud problem,” he said.
According to Corbett’s office, studies show that 99 percent of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters already have acceptable photo IDs. They also said a recent poll determined that 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters favor a law requiring identification at the polls.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who also voted against the legislation, called it a “Voter Suppression Bill” and said that even on the national level, based on a study conducted by the United States Department of Justice during the presidency of George Bush, only 86 cases of voter fraud were committed between 2002 and 2007 out of 300 million votes. Hughes also said that in Pennsylvania during the 2008 election, there were only four cases of voter fraud reported.
“We will not allow the voice of so many voters to be silenced because this legislation has been signed into law. We will continue to voice our opposition and fight to see that this erroneous law is stopped, just like in Texas and Wisconsin,” Hughes said.
In city council Thursday morning, members blasted the law with a resolution condemning the state Senate for its approval last week. The resolution passed 15-2, with two Republicans voting against it.
Members Brian O’Neill and David Oh voted against, saying they too disapproved of the law, but that the word “condemn” was too strong.
“It’s too strong for me, and I think it’s unwise,” O’Neill said.
Others had no problem with the language.
“There is no question that this was done during a presidential election year in an attempt to suppress votes,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “It’s just a terrible piece of legislation. It’s been a waste of our legislators time.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said voters should use an absentee ballot.
“This whole issue is just unfortunate and unfair,” she said. “I hope people will consider absentee ballot applications, which certainly is our right.”
The Committee of Seventy is planning a massive public education campaign to counter the possible effects of the law and to make sure people know their rights and what types of identification will be acceptable when they go to the polls.
This enormous undertaking must start right now and continue every day until the Nov. 6 general election.” said Zack Stalberg, President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “Every possible resource will be tapped — from convenience stores to banks to media outlets to libraries — to let voters know which IDs will be accepted at the polls and where to go if they don’t have one. “If necessary, we’ll drive voters to PennDOT offices to get ID.”
J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP has joined with the coalition forming with the ACLU to oppose the new law. In the meantime, registered voters should show up at the nearest PennDOT center on Wednesday, March 21, to receive the free photo identification cards. Normally they cost $13.
“A dirty look, a nasty comment, or a physical altercation is not worth a lifetime of negative memories,” state Senator Anthony Williams told the freshman class during an anti-bullying workshop at the Penn Wood High School Cypress Street campus last Thursday.
Joined by two-time world cruiserweight boxing champ, Steve “USS” Cunningham, and stand-up comic, film and actor Michael Blackson (“Next Friday,” “Are We There Yet?”), Williams hosted the second in a series of school-based anti-bullying workshops to help reduce student-on-student violence.
“Michael Blackson and Steve Cunningham were very positive,” said Penn Wood High School 9th Grade Counselor Kristin Tulisiak. “The students were really excited to see those guys here and know they had similar experiences”
According to the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), one of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, researchers found that nearly 65 percent of victims said bullying was not reported, either by themselves or others, to teachers or school officials.
“Bullying comes in many forms: electronic, written, physical and verbal,” said Penn Wood High School Vice Principal Seth Brunner.
The workshop was organized in conjunction with Yeadon Borough Council President John Holden, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reed and William Penn School District board member Robert Wright Sr.
The William Penn School Board has adopted the district’s anti-bullying policy, which all Pennsylvania schools are required to incorporate into their Code of Student Conduct.
The policy must identify disciplinary actions for bullying, designate a school staff person to receive complaints of bullying and make the anti-bullying policy available on the school’s website and posted in every classroom.
All Pennsylvania public schools must provide a copy of its anti-bullying policy to the Office for Safe Schools every year, and review their policy every three years. Additionally, the district must conduct an annual review of that policy with students.
“I support state Senator Williams and his efforts to bring light to this issue,” said Yeadon Borough Council President Holden. “This is one of his many initiatives here in Yeadon that focuses on improving the lives of our youth and community.”
Recognizing that bullying is one of the most commonplace catalysts of youth violence, be it on the part of the bully or retaliation by the victim, Williams encouraged the students to become ambassadors of peace in their school and in their community.
“I became a bully myself,” said 9th-grader Tadia Nicholson of Darby. “I wanted so badly to fit in that I lost sight of what was right and wrong.”
Often spurred by inter-ethnic and territorial conflicts, Penn Wood High School has launched the anti-bullying initiative to address the increased number of students coming from neighboring boroughs and those of African descent, primarily Liberia.
“Being from another country, I was verbally bullied every day,” Blackson said addressing the students. “But the bullies have all ended up dead or in jail.” Know as the African King of Comedy, the Ghanaian-American developed his comedic talent in Philadelphia and is devoted to his foundation, which provides education aid to African children across the continent of Africa.
“Kids and young adults must learn to accept that people are different. People have diverse ideas, beliefs, fashion and appearances,” Nicholson said. “The sooner we can get my generation to grasp that, the better off we will be.”
Williams’ office has partnered with MiND TV to help Penn Wood High School students create anti-bullying public service announcements.
His office and teachers will select the 10 best PSA scripts, which MiND TV will produce in collaboration with the students. The 9th-grade class will select the winning PSA, which will air on MiND TV for a year.
The Chester Upland School District can now count the Chester Community Charter School as an ally in CUSD’s fight to keep its doors open and for an increase to the state’s education budget for Chester.
With that in mind, more than 100 parents of students in Chester boarded a pair of buses on Tuesday to hand deliver petitions signed by more than 1,000 people to Gov. Tom Corbett’s office; the group also sat in on a Senate education committee hearing.
“What we accomplished was obtaining a greater recognition amongst the legislators and the governor’s office of the real role that Chester Community Charter School has in that community,” said Chester Community Charter School spokesman A. Bruce Crawley. “It is unfair to balance the woes of the state budget on the backs of students in Chester.”
Crawley said the parents were “respectful, yet resolute,” when they first met with Corbett’s staff before taking in the Senate hearing. Although Corbett himself was unavailable, Corbett’s staff promised to deliver the petitions and inform the governor of the action by the group of parents.
Count Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams as one of the elected officials supportive of the movement.
“I was impressed and inspired; it bought me to ask questions of the Education Secretary in regard to funding,” said Williams, who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “I am very grateful they showed up, and it’s very important. I am very interested in this matter.”
Lost in the broiling debate between Chester Upland School District and the state over the education budget is that CUSD and the CCCS represent the very same thing: the education of Chester students.
There is no hostility between the two education providers; in fact, both rely on, and need each other, if both are to exist.
“There are people who long believe charter schools take money from the school district, and that is a misperception,” Crawley said. “The reality is, when a kid is no longer in a school district and the parent opts to send him or her to a charter school, the Pennsylvania Department of Education provides funding [for that student] to the charter school.
“Those funds are restricted,” Crawley continued. “Those funds were never intended to be a part of the school district’s budget.”
Crawley said that the school district acts like a conduit for the state to get money to the charter school; it’s that mode of money transfer that sometimes confuses people, Crawley explained, but it is how the laws were drawn up — and doesn’t mean the state is somehow funding charter schools and not the school district, or vice versa.
“We had research done last week. … 40 percent of Chester Upland parents also have a child in the Chester Community Charter School, so these kids are living in the same house,” Crawley said. “The parents don’t want either-or; they want them both to be funded — and for both to provide an excellent education.
“This [friction] is just something that has been created; it’s a fallacy.”
Crawley illuminated his point further by noting that Chester Community Charter School only serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and all Chester high school students are generally routed through the CUSD.
“There’s no way for anybody to be against one or the other; we said we want our schools funded — both schools,” Crawley said. “The parents went up there and fought for both.”
Williams, also wanted to clarify the relation among the two schools and the state.
“That’s the whole point: charter schools are public schools, just like magnet schools are,” Williams said. “People need to accept the fact that charter schools are publicly driven, — although they work on a lesser budget — are still proctored the same way. It would be shocking if Chester Upland did only allow funding for certain schools.”
“Even the most hard-hearted elected official can see there’s no viable option other than to provide the funding,” Crawley said. “So we are cautiously optimistic.”
On the day the state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about the state’s controversial new voter ID law, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams is scheduled to host a Voter ID Education and Action Rally to help voters take the necessary steps to ensure that their vote counts this November.
“While we continue to fight this confusing, unnecessary and utterly disgraceful new law, it’s crucial that voters are made aware of their rights so that they are ready for Election Day,” Williams said. “Freedom-loving Americans cherish the vote, a right for which generations have died to secure. That’s why we’re set to answer questions, offer resources and ensure that as many people as possible are prepared and able to protect and exercise their vote this fall.”
The rally will take place on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 5 p.m. at Kingsessing Recreation Center, located at 50th Street and Kingsessing Avenue in Philadelphia.
There will be representatives from various civic organizations available to talk to participants about the law, opportunities to volunteer for voter outreach, entertainment and free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream while supplies last.
The new law will now force voters to present specific forms of photo ID when they cast their ballots, starting with this November’s election.
Several organizations have fought in Commonwealth Court to strike down the law, arguing that the nation’s most restrictive measure to date could disenfranchise some 750,000 previously valid voters. Despite these and other facts, the court upheld it.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case and is expected to begin proceedings on Sept. 13.
Williams, Democratic whip and Democratic chair of the state government committee, and his Senate Democratic colleagues voted against the voter ID legislation earlier this year.
They contend that it would adversely impact select members of the voting population — namely people of color, seniors, women and youthful voters. Video that surfaced of state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai bragging that the law would allow Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania further bolstered claims that voter ID was designed to suppress votes, not reduce fraud, which to date has been reported as minimal, if at all.
Last week, Williams and his colleagues filed an amicus brief with the state Supreme Court in support of efforts to stop the law from being implemented.
If, as the old saying goes, politics is a contact sport; then Philadelphia politics is a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match.
Every campaign season, we are inundated with candidates whose shameless win-at-all-costs philosophy embarrasses us into not voting for them, or not voting at all. Every Election Day, whether primary, general or special, we are treated to stories of dirty tricks, underhanded tactics, and outright sabotage in the name of winning a public office.
Then the winners somehow expect the public to forget everything they’ve seen and heard for the past six months and trust them as honorable, fair-minded servants of the people.
This explains pretty much everything wrong with local politics: the feeling of voter apathy, the general distrust of elected officials, and the pathetic 15 to 18 percent voter turnout numbers we’re used to seeing.
We, the long-suffering public, are expected to wade through a knee-deep quagmire of lies, corruption, and stupidity to arrive upon a candidate who can move this city, and this country forward without succumbing to the temptation of greed and corruption themselves.
It’s not easy, and it’s not pretty, but once in a while, the good guys actually win.
There are several examples, but I’ll just cite a couple for now.
State Rep. Jim Roebuck, who has quietly led West Philly’s 188th District for more than 25 years, suddenly found himself in a dogfight for his seat with Fatimah Muhammad, a 27-year old neophyte with lots of youthful enthusiasm, and an equal amount of youthful naiveté.
Ms. Muhammad received about $25,000 for her campaign coffers from Students First PA, the pro-voucher group who spent a fortune bankrolling the campaigns of local politicians willing to sign on to the school voucher philosophy.
Strongly worded campaign literature floated around the district painting the incumbent Roebuck as an anti-child, anti-education dinosaur because of his opposition to school vouchers. While Muhammad denied any connection to the literature, and in fact stated in a Tribune editorial board meeting that she wouldn’t vote for the voucher bill as it is presently written, the association stuck.
Roebuck won his seat, and Muhammad has presumably been left to ponder the consequence of taking large sums of cash from single-issue contributors. That money isn’t free, folks, and you’re nuts if you think they don’t want something for it. Deviate from the script, and bad things happen.
Up in North Philly’s 197th District, Jewel Williams, the 27-year old daughter of newly elected Sheriff Jewell Williams, ran for the state rep seat he held for years. She didn’t campaign much, didn’t work to get her name out there much, and didn’t do much to quiet the increasing number of voices complaining that she was looking for a free ride by cashing in on her father’s familiar name.
It’s a cynical idea, and one both her and her father should have worked hard to quash. Philadelphians have voted for the offspring of famous politicians before: Goode, Rizzo, Williams, and Green come to mind, but it’s usually a fact that the offspring makes a special effort to be their own person, to prove that they are much more than just ‘whats-his-name’s kid.’
If I were to leave my job tomorrow, I would not attempt to install my 22-year old daughter as city editor of the Tribune. While I love her more than anyone on earth, I also recognize that she is completely unqualified to run a newsroom. To ignore that fact would be an insult to my colleagues, and to our readers.
To their credit, the voters of the 197th didn’t fall for the old okey doke. They elected J.P. Miranda, who is also very young, but brings with him a wealth of experience as a legislative aide and community organizer.
In my South Philly neighborhood, state House candidate Damon Roberts faced a much more dangerous opponent than Jordan Harris, who beat him out for the 186th seat vacated by Kenyatta Johnson – his own campaign staff.
Apparently, Roberts was attempting to pay his workers their promised $100 each by check - already a bad idea - when he then ran out of checks. As you can imagine, it got ugly. So ugly, in fact, that Roberts had to call the police to protect him from his own workers.
Let this week’s election serve as a cautionary tale for future office seekers: be careful whose money you take, have an actual platform to run on, and most importantly – make sure you have the cash on hand to pay up on Election Day.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
Perhaps there’s no better way to celebrate Black History Month than by taking a look at Africa itself.
That’s the plan for Saturday’s “Imagine Africa” free community day at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, which will include various interactive displays and exhibits, along with featuring a number of African-themed performance pieces.
“We’re hoping to draw in a community that maybe hasn’t come to the museum before, and maybe didn’t know it even existed,” said Jean Byrne, UPenn museum’s community engagement director. “We’re trying to change the perception within the greater community that the museum isn’t just academic.
“And that’s what ‘Imagine Africa’ is all about,” Byrne continued. “It’s a contemporary gallery experience that is very interactive.”
The program, Byrne said, will revolve around major themes such as beauty, strength, healing, creating and the divine; attendees will also have an opportunity to input what they think Africa should look like and contrast that against the real images of Africa today.
“It’s right next to the Africa gallery, so one can compare the two,” Byrne said. “You will be able to take surveys and set up the video walls on how you would like Africa to look.”
Urban music station 100.3 FM is one of the sponsors of the event, and radio personality and Lady B will broadcast live from the museum from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m; Senator Anthony Williams is also a sponsor of “Imagine Africa.”
The Woman’s Sekere Ensemble will perform at 1 and 2:30 p.m., and LaSalle University’s Neo-African Drums ‘N Dance group will lead a pair of spirited workshops at 1:45 and 3:30. Dr. Mary Osirim, a sociology professor from Bryn Mawr College will speak, as will Liberian expert Wayetu Moore and Ghanaian scholar Dr. Samuel Quartey.
African students attached to UPenn’s African Studies Center will also share their unique experiences from their homelands: Oloufounmi Koucoi/Ghana and Benin; exchange student Itumeleng Buisanyang/Botswana; Wharton School of Business student Nicholas Mushaike/Zambia; visiting Fullbright scholar Fortune Hayab/Nigeria and students Aya Saed, Nabta Idries and Oma Elhaj/Sudan.
In all, there will be representatives, performers and guest speakers from seven (of the more than 50) African countries.
“In the arts and creative communities, it’s a great place for them to perform, with beautiful galleries,” Byrne said. “It’s how we learn about the cultures of the world. It’s a great opportunity to look into the programming we can do around Africa.
“We’ll also have a café with African dishes,” Byrne continued. “We want to really engage the community, and what’s really important is sustaining that, because we want to keep these voices and relationships strong.”
West and Southwest Philadelphia residents gathered Thursday at the Mercy Philadelphia Hospital chapel at 5300 Cedar Ave. to discuss community concerns. Illegal dumping, abandoned houses and crime were some of the topics raised during this forum organized by Committeewoman and organizer Julia Chinn.
The meeting was sponsored by the Concerned Block Captains of West/Southwest Philadelphia, which holds its community meetings the second Monday of every month, except July and August, to discuss community concerns.
“We thought that instead of having a regular monthly meeting, we would have something on a topic that needs to be addressed, so our topic for this meeting was crime,” said Chinn, president of the block captain organization.
“We have been around for eons, even though some people say that they never heard of us,” said Chinn about the organization.
During the gathering, residents had an opportunity to hear from a panel, which included Sen. Anthony H. Williams, Anthony Murphy of Townwatch Integrated Services, Lt. Sparrow of the 18th police district, and others who took turns addressing the concerns of the residents.
“The real solution is you,” said Anthony Murphy, executive director of Townwatch. “Our neighborhoods are different than what they were 20 years ago, and they didn’t change overnight. They changed because we stopped doing the neighborly things that we were educated to do.”
Murphy encouraged residents to speak to one another as opposed to talking about one another, stating that the former brings people together and the latter only adds to the division and disunity believed to exist in many inner-city neighborhoods.
Murphy also gave a special acknowledgement to the men in attendance.
“So often we come to these meetings and its women, just ladies — and the ladies are saying, ‘Where are the men at?’ Tonight we don’t have to ask where they are, because they are here,” said Murphy whose statement was greeted with applause.
Bettie Roundtree, a block captain and community organizer, took a moment to thank Julia Chinn for her hard work in the community.
“To see almost every seat filled, you have no idea what joy that gave me. Black people are alright in my book,” said Roundtree in reference to the filled to capacity crowd who attended the affair.
Roundtree congratulated the gathering for creating a forum where residents of West Philly could express their thoughts and opinions — and get needed assistance.
And those concerns were plentiful. One resident expressed her concern about criminals in her neighborhood, suggesting that pictures of suspects should be published publically. This was followed by a brief lesson in the law by Williams.
“In America, you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Williams, who took the opportunity to explain the rights of those accused of a crime and those convicted of a crime.
Another resident complained about an abandoned house where raccoons were nesting; another voiced his outrage at neighborhood youth who congregated on corners and are believed to be responsible for petty crimes and burglaries in the area.
“These same guys are arrested one day, and the next day they are back on the same corners where they were arrested,” said the unidentified resident.
This fact was supported by Lt. Bryant Sparrow, an officer at the 18th police district, who confirmed that there was an increase in burglaries in one West Philadelphia area and that suspected perpetrators were out within three days. He suggested that the community invite judges and bail commissioners to such meetings to express their discontent.
Another woman complained about the trash in her community, adding that she sometimes wished that she could move to a white neighborhood. Williams, himself a resident of West Philadelphia, quickly responded with a statement about personal responsibility for the safety, cleanliness and well-being of our communities.
“With all due respect, the issue about what happens in the neighborhood is why we are gathered here. It’s nothing wrong with being Black, all Black people aren’t dirty,” said Williams, who said it’s not the government that dumps trash on our streets, but our own neighbors.
Williams urged residents to get involved in local government and do their part to preserve the quality of life on their blocks.
During an interview, Chinn reflected on a time when her streets were cleaned every week, trash pick up was twice a week and alleys and curbs were cleaned.
“All of these things have changed,” said Chinn. “We get absolutely none of the above. Crime can start from these kinds of things, because when people look at the neighborhoods, they see no interest [from the community] — and just take over.”
Chinn would like city and state agencies to join the local community in efforts to improve the quality of life, protection and cleanliness of the city’s streets.”
The phrase “school vouchers” seems to hit a nerve among three Democratic candidates for the state legislature — but it’s unclear if it’s the controversy of the vouchers themselves, or the money behind a drive to create a voucher program in Pennsylvania that makes them sweat.
Candidates in contested primary races for three open seats — the 188th, 186th and 190th — in the state House of Representatives support vouchers, at least in principle, a fact that has given them each a financial boost. All three contend that their support of vouchers is just part of a broad promise to improve access to education in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I’m not the pro-voucher, send money to private schools person some people are trying to paint me as,” said Jordan Harris, campaigning in the 186th, in a Tribune editorial board this week. “I support quality education across the board. For me, that means we empower parents with the opportunity to decide where their children go to school. The parents should decide where their tax dollars are going to go.”
Harris said he would suggest some changes to current voucher legislation before he could support it.
“I’m not totally sold on the legislation as it stands now,” he said, noting the legislation prohibits schools from accepting voucher money and later kicking out students.
“But, what I will say is that there needs to be additional options. Vouchers are a part of the educational tool box. I don’t think it is the tool box — and I think I’ve been mischaracterized.”
However, Harris has received money — $20,000 — from Students First, an organization with financial ties to one of his mentors, state Sen. Anthony Williams, as have two other candidates with districts that overlap Williams’ Senate District 8.
It’s a fact that makes separating the politics and the finances of the issue difficult.
Though the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and vouchers are usually seen as a Republican issue, Williams has emerged as a vocal supporter of vouchers.
He was one of three state legislators to sponsor the voucher bill that Harris referred to, S.B. 1. It was approved by the state Senate last fall, and if passed in the House, would provide vouchers for low-income students in failing schools. It is still in the House, where it has been since October.
Williams drew attention not just for his position on vouchers, but also for the money his stance generated.
Money from Students First, which helped finance Williams’ failed run for governor, is now flowing into three contested House races in districts that overlap with Williams’ district in west, south and southwest Philadelphia.
The organization drew broad media attention after it gave Williams more than $5 million during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. The group’s financial backers include conservative hedge-fund managers Jeffrey Yass, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg.
They’ve opened their wallets again for candidates vying to be Williams’ colleagues in the state legislature.
In the 188th District, the group has given $25,000 to Fatimah Muhammad, who is challenging incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck, who has the backing of the teachers’ union and was publicly against Williams’ voucher bill. Another $10,000 was given to incumbent state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown in the 190th District. She is facing two challengers, Wanda Logan and Audrey Blackwell-Watson, the daughter of the late Lucien Blackwell, who also served in the state House and is the step-daughter of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Muhammad said she didn’t know how much Students First had given her campaign.
“That is one of many organizations I’ve received money from,” she said. “As someone who’s new to politics, I can’t afford not to take money from anyone.”
The donation has not tied her hands on vouchers, she said.
“In this campaign vouchers have been used by my opponent to try and pigeonhole me in a particular area,” she said. “My stance is to keep everything on the table. I want parents at the center of this — not for political gain or anything. My stance has always been empowering parents.”
Like Harris, Muhammad said she couldn’t support S.B. 1, without some changes.
“I have concerns about that bill,” she said, reiterating that she could not be classified as a voucher supporter or opponent. “I’m not going to be pigeonholed. This is a terrible distraction.”
Muhammad, who recalled being homeless as a child, said that her tough experiences and hardships created in her a passion to help others who are underprivileged and underserved.
Despite her tough beginnings, Muhammad later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and said that it is now her wish to give back to others.
She received the endorsement this week of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the Guardian Civic League.
Brown said her support for vouchers was personal and had nothing to do with Students First.
“I work with Republicans every day,” she said. “There are some issues that we’re together on and some issues that we’re not. This just happens to be an issue that I’m very passionate about for personal reasons.”
Brown said before her election, she was a single, unemployed mom with a special needs child who wanted better for her son.
“It was early on that I saw that my child needed a lot more than the public schools were offering,” she said. “When I tried to send him to other schools, I could not afford those choices.”
At a town hall meeting in Philadelphia held at the city’s Museum of Art, Gov. Tom Corbett made a statement that his numerous critics say is in total opposition to a newly funded building project.
At the meeting, which was hosted by radio personality Dom Giordano, Corbett said he would build no new prisons.
“When it comes to the construction of prisons, not only have I not added new prisons, I’ve stopped the building of prisons,” said the governor. “Forty percent of every tax dollar you spend goes to education in Pennsylvania. Right now over $9 billion goes to K-12. It is the highest state funding has ever been in the history of Pennsylvania.”
In October, Corbett signed off on an extensive legislative package aimed at reducing recidivism and the high cost of incarceration. Corbett said that “it was time to start thinking smarter about how the state incarcerates defendants and that the answer isn't always building new prisons.”
But on Monday, Nov. 19, seven members of a grassroots organization known as DecarceratePA held a protest blocking the entrance to the construction site of two new prisons right beside SCI Graterford. The organization is calling for the state to stop the construction of the new prisons and to reinvest the money, more than $600 million, in communities; as well as calling for an end to mass incarceration, and a reduction of the prison population.
“We blocked the entrance to the construction site using school desks and a mock-up of a little red school house to illustrate the point we’re trying to make. The state is spending over $400 million on this project, money the state doesn’t have to throw around,” said Thomas Dichter, spokesman for the group. “Our message is this money should be used for community reinvestment, for education, housing and social services, services that Governor Corbett has cut funding for. He eliminated general assistance for needy families, yet can fund the construction of new prisons. This just shows a lack of reality. He stated at a town hall meeting that he wouldn’t build new prisons and signed off on prison reform. He’s not about prison reform. What we’re doing is putting the Pennsylvania prison system on trial.”
In 2011, the Corbett Administration halted construction of a $200 million prison construction project in Fayette County that would have housed 2,000 inmates, but it proceeded with prison construction projects in Centre County and at SCI Graterford, The Corbett Administration agreed to pay Walsh Construction and Heery International $315.8 million to design and build a facility capable of housing 4,100 offenders on the Graterford State Prison grounds. The total cost of the project was estimated at $365 million.
Dichter said the new construction represents an expansion of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and a continuation of policies that lock people up instead of giving the communities the resources they need to thrive. The money used to build these prisons is money that is being stolen from the schools, healthcare and re-entry programs, social services, and the environment, Dichter said.
“Corbett said he wants to shrink the prison system — so why is he expanding it?” Dichter asked. “We would like to see more legislators from Philadelphia on board with this, since Philly residents are over-represented in the state’s prison population. These projects are in the early stages, so it’s not too late to pull the funding for them and reinvest the money where it’s most needed.”
Among the projects related to incarceration that lost funding under the Corbett Administration was a successful program for ex-offenders called Philly ReNew. State Senator Anthony H. Williams managed to get the program a $50,000 grant to keep the program operating for a while longer. Philly ReNew began operations in 2008 and took in 150 men a year, ex-offenders from not only city detention facilities but also state and federal inmates who were being released. People who were non-violent offenders, violent offenders, both men and women and, sex offenders were assisted in putting their lives back together.
“If state government does not pay on the front end, then we will continue to pay $30,000 to $40,000 per year per individual on the back end, and by they way, they will be younger and in prison longer,” said Williams. "That is an unsustainable economic model for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
It was billed as “The Philadelphia Story,” but the narrative took a different turn.
To be sure, Philadelphia state senators Vincent Hughes and Anthony Hardy Williams did turn up at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for a discussion of “Natural Gas and Public Opinion” in a workshop at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s recent conference, “Shale Gas Insight 2012.”
But although the Coalition’s stated intention in bringing its second annual conference here was to acquaint Philadelphians with how the Marcellus energy boom benefits the whole state, much of the “Philadelphia Story” conversation centered on the efforts of a senator from the other end of the Commonwealth, Tim Solobay, to convince Philadelphia’s legislative delegation to support Gov. Tom Corbett’s bill authorizing “local impact fees” to support counties where drillers are working the booming energy development reshaping Appalachia’s economy.
The fees, since authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, produced $197 million for the Commonwealth by early September, and are expected to top $206 million by year’s end. Portions of the state’s share of that money are to be distributed to municipalities across the Commonwealth, including Philadelphia.
Workshop moderator Solobay, whose 46th District spreads over parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties and all of Greene County, had invited Hughes and Williams out to see for themselves what life was like in the poorer communities of Southwest Pennsylvania as the natural-gas boom ramped up. For the Philadelphians, that was an eye-opener. New approaches to hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” in common parlance — have brought accelerating development of Marcellus Shale resources, taking Pennsylvania from the bottom rank of natural-gas-producing states to near the top, second only to Texas, by the end of 2011.
Learning on the front lines
“I started out largely hearing about ‘fracking’ through documentaries and news reports,” Williams said. “I was not persuaded so much by Governor Corbett as by the real-life stories of people living in the ‘wasteland’ of Western Pennsylvania. I looked at the poverty in those communities and the jobs being produced, and that, more than anything else, persuaded me to support the impact fee.
“I voted ‘Yes,’ and got pilloried on billboards,” Williams said. But looking at what he saw — especially the rapid economic developments in communities that had been desperate pockets of unemployment and poverty — Williams was convinced it was the right thing to do.
“This, I think frankly, is one of Pennsylvania’s defining moments,” Williams said. “I think the news here (in Philadelphia) is dominated by narrow-band communications from people who think solar energy is the alternative energy source. But we are a Northeastern city.” He understood the environmentalists’ concerns about fracking and the potential of spills contaminating water supplies, Williams said, but in his mind, those dangers are “no different from the consequences of coal.
“To lead the country to miss this size of an opportunity,” Williams said, “is frankly irresponsible. This source of energy will have a positive effect. The benefits outweigh the negatives.”
Environment not neglected
“This is not an industry that’s looking for public relations nightmares,” Solobay said. The pipeline rights of way, and the well-pads they (gas producers) develop are creating wildlife habitat” as part of the developments, Solobay said. “This industry is probably more friendly to the environment than the people protesting realize.”
Perusal of the Shale Gas Insight Conference program booklet reveals that not only the Coalition’s daylong pre-conference meetings, but 15 workshops and presentations — half of all the regular conference sessions — were focused on environmental protection, safety, and regulatory concerns. One telling revelation was that, although shale formations are being drilled and fracked in many states, beginning with Texas’ Barnett Shale in 1985 and continuing with the Haynesville Shale spread across several Southwestern states, Pennsylvania is the only state where the gas producers are using special treatment plants to clean up the chemically treated fracking fluid once it flows back up the well bore, and re-using it to frack new wells.
Talking, but not listening
The protesters outside the Convention Center, arguing with arriving conference attendees about potential harm to Pennsylvania’s drinking water supplies, but with no representatives listening to the presentations inside, missed out on their opportunity for a full-bore discussion of whether the energy companies’ efforts actually were as well worked-out as the environmentalists would like.
State Sen. Hughes agreed with his western Pennsylvania colleague.
“We’ve got to move forward, helping people understand what shale gas means,” Hughes said. Getting the impact fee bill passed “was a pretty tumultuous process, especially here in Southeast Pennsylvania.
“Solobay said, ‘I want you to come out here and just see what this thing is all about’,” Hughes said. “I took him up on it — he did not believe I had jeans and work boots, but I did. Solobay put together a program so we could see up close — to the executives and the people on the ground. We shared and dialogued, and it opened my eyes in a number of different ways,” Hughes said. At dinner one night, people there asked, ‘why is there this contention?’ People in Southwest Pennsylvania experience this industry in their lives. In Southeast Pennsylvania, people don’t get a chance to touch it.”
Effects seen in utility rates
Solobay, for his part, noted that natural gas prices have fallen because of the Marcellus Shale development, producing a 48 percent decline in PGW rates. The availability of so much fuel, Solobay said, was cutting the cost of electric power across the state as well as cutting gas bills.
State Sen. Hughes said his experiences in the western part of the state had made him want to become more knowledgeable about the new energy boom.
“Not until you have that on-the-ground experience (do) you come to see what it means,” he said. We have to have an engaged conversation, and a thoughtful conversation,” Hughes said. “We (Southeast Pennsylvania) are 50 percent of the state’s economy,” he told Solobay. “You can’t ignore us. There’s always going to be a back-and-forth conversation about environmental issues, but the idea of getting people engaged is important.
“Southeast Pennsylvania has to be part of the enterprise, and not just users of the product.”
Not enough local leaders
That point might have been more easily made if more of Philadelphia’s community and government leaders been involved in the shale conference. Gov. Corbett spoke to a packed opening session at Shale Insight 2012, the second conference the gas producers have held in Philadelphia, but his audience was almost entirely made up of well drillers and pipeline builders, contractor companies of various kinds — some 300 counted on the exhibit floor — and representatives of law firms, investor groups and their business associates.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter spoke before another opening session, on the second day of the shale gas conference, but was not involved in its major workshop sessions. Ditto for Philadelphia’s City Council members, many of whom continue to express concern about the risks inherent in the use of chemically treated water — in large amounts — to “frack” underground rock formations to free up natural gas for harvesting. Their distrust has not been addressed.
Growth expected here as well
Several conference speakers, including Corbett, pointed to the Carlyle Group’s rescue of Sunoco’s South Philadelphia refinery, with its plans for a new, Marcellus Shale-gas-fired, 100-megawatt co-generator, new equipment to refine natural gas into petrochemical feedstocks, plastics and synthetic fibers, etc., as well as upgraded oil refining equipment to boost the refinery’s output of low-sulfur diesel fuel, which it exports to other countries.
That development, as well as the recently announced plans to bring 100-car trainloads of Utica Shale petroleum from Eastern Ohio to the Sunoco refinery and shale oil from Colorado and North Dakota also, will re-energize Philadelphia’s chemical manufacturing base. With more trainloads of North American oil headed for Delta Airline’s Trainer, Pa., refinery — and with still other trainloads of natural gas already rolling to Marcus Hook for processing and export to Caribbean countries and a “Mariner East” pipeline set to boost the flow by 2015 — that means this energy boom is as likely to prompt new economic and jobs growth in the Delaware River communities of Southeast Pennsylvania, as it is in the Commonwealth’s southwestern corner.
In other words, people in Philadelphia — and all along the Delaware river as well — are set to see expanding effects from the economic activity flowing out of the drill fields in Southwest Pennsylvania: refinery activity, re-invigorated manufacturing activities because of lower energy and feedstock costs, new port developments and increased river traffic, gushing out of the exploitation of the deep shale hydrocarbon reservoirs almost as fast as the hydrocarbon substances themselves pour out. In turn, that suggests Philadelphians can likely expect shares of the rampant jobs growth the Shale Coalition sees happening mostly in Appalachia — 200,000 new jobs by the state Labor Department’s most widely cited estimate — as well as increased contracting opportunities for small businesses here, just as is happening in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
That message was almost lost in the background noise, as the energy companies and their stock-market boosters celebrated another boom year in an energy development that, as state Sen. Williams said, has produced “a defining moment for Pennsylvania.”