Saturday, September 09, 2006

There are Democrats in Berwick

I was recently contacted by David Slavick, the Democratic Candidate for State Representative in the 109th Legislative District (Columbia County). The district borders Luzerne County. He is running against freshman Republican David Millard.

My name is David Slavick, I am the Democratic Candidate for State Representative in PA's 109Th District. ). I am a 27 year-old alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and of Ursinus College where I majored in Politics. Despite studying politics and international relations in college, I did not become personally motivated to get involved in the political system until my motivation literally ran into me one summer.

During the summer leading into my junior year, I was working at a factory that manufactured truck trailers near my hometown of Berwick, PA. Each day I awoke at 4 A.M so I could get to work at the plant that was about an hour away by 5:30 A.M. The days were long and exhausting, but it was "lucrative" summer work for our area, as it paid an unheard of $9.00 an hour and you had most Fridays off.

That summer I earned a few dollars for my textbook fund, made some friends, and even learned how to use an arc welder. Working at the plant also taught me some valuable lessons about the relationship between labor and management in the real world. In the lunchroom, fliers littered the tables where we took our breaks. They stated that workers should be happy and grateful to have their jobs and that under recently passed NAFTA the company could start building trailers in Mexico within a week's time. We all knew what that meant.

One Thursday morning, I went into the lunchroom and heard that our orders were to make 15 trailers that day. At the time, we probably averaged around 11. It was also clear to us that we were "encouraged" to finish the job that day so we would not have to be paid overtime. Despite the warnings of the shop stewards, management had ordered the line to be set at breakneck speed. Trying to keep up, we had to bend safety precautions. Finally, on the last trailer of the day, I stepped into the lunchroom for a cup of vending machine coffee. Upon returning to work, I realized that the line that was moving furiously just minutes ago had completely stopped. That is when my co-worker ran into me, causing me to spill my coffee. As that happened, I noticed everyone in the plant was staring directly at me. I looked down to realize I was standing in a trail of blood that stretched nearly thirty feet across the floor. My co-worker was holding his hand, which had been severed from a piece of sheet metal. That was the only day I left work early.

The next week we heard some news about our co-worker who was injured. Most of it regarded how company officials had tricked him into signing away his right to sue, and had found a way to cheat him out of his worker's compensation insurance. It was at that moment I decided to go to law school to study labor law and help aid the voices of the working person justifiably. During law school, I learned that most jobs as a "labor" attorney were available defending companies from the type of claims I had hoped to defend; so I switched my focus to international development. This interest lead to a number of amazing opportunities to work and travel abroad.

Surprisingly, it was my work abroad, which led me to get my feet wet in Pennsylvania politics. While helping draft trade legislation at the USAID/WTO Accession for Serbia and Montenegro, I had the opportunity to work with talented and dynamic people who were in their twenties like me. Unlike in the United States, Serbian circumstances of regime change and of attenuated war had created a perfect storm where the "next generation" was leading today. The energy and enthusiasm of the twenty-something's leading the charge for reform in the public sector was something I fully embraced and I carry with me today.

The experience of working in an environment where young talented people could take leadership roles, and help achieve noticeable progress in the public sector, was indescribable. The only domestic experience that I think could be comparable is that of the culture of the technology industry during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. The realization that we in the United States were squandering the untapped resource of young leaders pushed me to return home to my hometown in rural Pennsylvania. I wanted to do my part in helping foster the type of political environment I experienced in Belgrade.

However, upon returning to Berwick I had not discovered my niche politically. I realized that many doors were closed to young leaders, and began to use the Internet as a means to help promote several causes that were of personal importance to me. This past year, I began blogging to rally support behind keeping an excellent neighborhood school that served a large number of economically disadvantaged students. The closing of the Mulberry Street Elementary School in Berwick was exactly what was not supposed to happen under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind." It had defied the predictions of numerous people, by being one of the first schools in Pennsylvania to achieve its "No Child Left Behind" goals in reading and math. Despite the miraculous success of the school, the school board made the decision to close it, something I felt could have been avoided had the school district not dug itself into millions of dollars in debt just a few years before by financing a gymnasium that rivals that of the Duke Blue Devils.

Many of us had hoped that our local state representative would help fix the situation with a legislative grant, or some other state money. Yet no help came, despite the fact that this school was a shining example of the good things he hoped would be achieved through rigorous standardized testing. This led me to investigate Pennsylvania's state government to see where its priorities were at, and I read nearly every bill that I could get my hands on.
I was perplexed in understanding how Pennsylvania had no limit on contributions to candidates for the General Assembly and that lobbyists had free reign to shower politicians with gifts. Last year alone Pa. lobbying costs averaged $1.4 million per state senator. I realized that the government in Harrisburg had become a far cry from William Penn's idea of a "Common Weal."
I decided I needed to take a more active role in our state government. I investigated the campaign contributions of my own State Representative, David Millard. Elected in a special election in 2004, and then reelected in the 2004 General, he had come from relative obscurity to become one of the most heavily financed PA House candidates of that year. With no political experience or legal background, he had received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from the RNC and House Republican Campaign Committee. He also had received thousands from clandestine political action committees that would make Jack Abramoff blush.
Despite rarely speaking publicly and receiving little financial support from voters in our district he became the newly anointed darling of donors from the coal, oil, insurance, gambling and tobacco industries. The differences between Mr. Millard and I could not be more different. I recently signed the 25x'25 pledge to pursue policies to ensure 25% of PA's energy supply comes from domestic renewable sources. I've sworn to take on insurance companies who do not come through on their promises, and I believe that regardless of whether you are a smoker or non-smoker that tobacco money has absolutely no place in our political system.
I learned that many of the politicians in Harrisburg were more deeply entrenched and corrupted by the political influence of corporate money than even the government in Washington. As a candidate, I have worked to expose the anti-democratic affect corporate money has had on PA state politics. The "Culture of Corruption" theme is not unique to my campaign. Democratic challengers around the State and around the country are working hard to expose the pernicious influence corporate money has had on our democracy. Many reform minded challengers succumb to the lure of corporate PAC's after realizing the nearly insurmountable burden that challengers must overcome in order to win. The Institute on Money in State Politics ( determined that most state house challengers have a less than one-in-ten chance of beating a well-funded incumbent:
"In 2002, 92 percent of the winners enjoyed either a money or incumbency advantage, or both. In the 2004 cycle, that increased to 94 percent." (

In Pennsylvania, this trend is particularly disturbing because weak campaign finance laws allow corporations to funnel an unlimited amount of money to incumbent candidates through political action committees. This forces reform-minded candidates like myself to rely on state party committees to provide the bulk of their financing. In Pennsylvania, the HDCC is the committee that serves the primary funding role for Democratic challengers and incumbents. The HDCC also provides other services that are useful and generally do a good job assisting candidates.

However, candidates hailing from rural districts, like myself, are at a distinct disadvantage under the HDCC funding scheme. This is because the HDCC requires that a candidate individually raises a threshold amount of $25,000 before they will contribute to the candidate's campaign.
$25,000 is a very attainable fundraising goal in many urban and suburban races, given the higher median income of these areas and the fact that these districts tend to have more Democratic donors per capita. However, reaching the $25,000 minimum can be nearly impossible in rural races given that rural district's usually have a lower median income and a higher percentage of Republican donors than their suburban and urban counterparts.

This funding system has left a gaping red hole in the middle of the blue state that, true to its name, will serve as a "keystone"( to a Democratic victory in the 2008 presidential race. Progressive rural Democratic challengers are the unsung foot soldiers that are now fighting the first battles to fill the White House with a Democratic candidate that has more in common with FDR than Joe Lieberman.

Despite the vital role rural progressives will play in the future of the Democratic party, the state system of funding is leaving dynamic and forward thinking candidates from rural areas out in the cold. My race is an excellent example of how a progressive candidate who is helping a rural red district "break blue" can be left out if they do not have adequate funding. The median per capita money income is less than $20,000, and nearly 75% of our districts political donors give to Republicans. Additionally, recent flooding( has decimated many of the areas where most of our county's Democratic donors reside. This makes raising the $25,000 needed to receive PA HDCC funds extremely difficult.

Despite the difficulty of raising campaign funds under these conditions, we are employing all means possible to raise the money needed to defeat the corporate funded Republican Incumbent David Millard ( We have several fundraisers scheduled that will raise approximately $1000 each. Additionally, we have an overwhelming response to our requests for supporters to host neighborhood house parties as a means of raising money and awareness for my campaign.

Despite the fact that our campaign fund is dwarfed by the $134,685 raised by incumbent Millard in 2004, we have actually raised more money from local donors than he has in his entire career. This fact is a great indicator of our chances in this race, given that many people in Columbia County have undergone great hardship this year and do not have much disposable income, giving greater symbolic weight to their contributions.

With less than 80 days, our hard in this campaign work is paying off. The grassroots has invigorated our local party and we are ready for the fight in 2008. We are bringing our message of hope, vision, and progress to all parts of the county, despite the recent national emergency level flooding. We have active volunteers in every precinct in Columbia County. Our county party has made great strides in recent months, nearly doubling the ranks of Democratic committee people, and each of the new committee members embrace a progressive vision for America. Our vision for a better Pennsylvania is spreading like a prairie fire. Independents and Republicans are changing their registrations and becoming Democrats. In the next few weeks, we will likely turn Columbia County blue once again by overcoming the 300-voter registration advantage currently held by Republicans.

Our work towards restoring a Democratic majority to Columbia County is most pronounced in my hometown, the once Democratic stronghold of Berwick. Berwick has produced nearly every Democratic legislator in our district in the past twenty years. Despite its prolific Democratic legacy, Berwick was home to some of the lowest performing democratic voting precincts in the State. Until recently, Berwick had only one or two active committee people. Since we began my campaign, we have recruited seven new committee people, and now represent the largest caucus of our county committee.

We are fostering online advocacy and connectedness by building the infrastructure needed to promote a vibrant local Netroots. We are using technology to bring together our supporters and to create an online buzz in a way that was unprecedented in our rural county just a few months ago. We are using DFA-Link ( to set up events and trainings, utilizing MySpace ( to attract younger voters to our campaign, and using a blog ( to publicize the issues ignored by the local conservative media.

We are laying the groundwork for Democratic victory in '08, but we need the help of national progressive "Netroots" to show the people of Central Pennsylvania that candidates that are not beholden to corporate interests can win. Help us build upon the progressive victory achieved by the Netroots in the Lamont race by contributing to our campaign. We can prove to the pundits that we have the strength to help ensure victory for progressive candidates whenever and wherever we want.

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