Honor among thieves

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There is perverse honor in the votes of state House minority leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, and Democratic Whip Michael Veon, D-Beaver Falls. Faced with a stampede of colleagues retreating for their political lives from a flood-tide of angry voters, every member of the state Senate, and 196 members of the state House voted to rescind a middle-of-the-night pay raise they granted themselves in the mistaken notion that they are worth the money.

Among this tribe of fleeing Visigoths, only two men remained at their posts: Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Veon. They cast the only votes against rescinding the raise.

Even House Speaker John Perzel, R-In Your Face, voted to repeal the law he had slipped into the books with the elan of a headwaiter padding a dinner bill.

"I believe the members of the General Assembly are worth one half of one congressman," Mr. Perzel told reporters during a brief lynching last month.

Say what you will about the biased media, we refrained from asking him which half. We were too busy marveling at Mr. Perzel's certainty that the matter was immutably closed and beyond a second vote.

It remained for Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Veon, two men whose party is out of power, but open co-conspirators in the bill, proudly passed at 2:30 a.m. July 7, in full view of the six public television viewers awake at that moment, to refuse an opportunity to be hypocrites. They voted against taking back the pay raise. In so doing, they made themselves a list of two -- names easily remembered by voters. Colleagues who voted for the raise ran for the tall weeds, speaking loudly about the will of The People, and doubtless imprinting "Voted to Rescind the Pay Grab" on their campaign fliers.

Messrs. DeWeese and Veon are many things, including calculating operators inside the Politburo on the Susquehanna. We must give them this much: They did what they did and they weren't about to pretend otherwise. Doubt the quantity of their virtue, but whatever virtue they possess has not been adulterated with cowardice.

"We both agreed it would be very difficult for us as leaders to abrogate our handshake and also to go to our constituency and the media with a reinvented commentary," Mr. DeWeese said.

No sooner was the heartsblood of woebegone legislators dry on the floor of the House Thursday than Mr. Veon was on the telephone to a Harrisburg radio talk show, explaining his decision.

"I don't feel any differently than I did on July 7," he said. To many this would seem a startling admission, an honesty so forthright as to offend the sensibilities of a society in which false modesty and ersatz indignation are ingredients as necessary to governing as are gin and malice to journalism.

"If I were in your district, Mike, you'd be gone," a caller replied.

If he were in Mr. Veon's district, he would be in the heart of a place noted for blunt talk, rapier strategy and municipal politics different from alligator wrestling only in that in alligator wrestling one of the combatants is warm-blooded. Mr. Veon can expect a closer margin come the next election, possibly even a loss. But some of his votes will come from people who hate him less than they do his opponent, because at least one of the candidates has now been caught in a provable truth.

"This has been my style for 21 years and I was going to stand by my conviction," Mr. Veon told me later.

Mr. DeWeese is a Marine Corps veteran noted for florid language, rich metaphor and a love of status. One thinks of Charles Ryder's description of Rex Mottram, the Canadian-born parliamentarian in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." He is, like Mottram, a man of "the big table in the Sporting Club, the second magnum and the fourth cigar."

But back home, Mr. DeWeese is no parvenu. Here is the disarming candor of his defense for voting against cancelling the pay raise:

"A pre-eminent facet among my constituency is a hardy cadre of straight-talking, hardworking coal miners and other middle-class folks who don't mince words. I certainly hope that those people who disagree with my vote will recognize that I was consistent. That was the only honorable thing for me to do."

Mr. DeWeese said the July 7 pay deal was "the result of four caucuses negotiating with the judiciary and the governor and a handshake cemented this agreement. ... Mike and I thought that a negative vote would sustain the honor of our handshake."

Think about this: of the assortment of men who did this dirty deal, Robert Jubelirer, the Senate president pro tem, John Perzel, the Republican speaker of the House, Edward Rendell, Governor of All Pennsylvania and its Dominions, it remained for Bill DeWeese and Mike Veon to admit their roles and consider their promises binding. I would not care to put these men in charge of my personal finances, but if I ever have to be a hostage with someone, I hope it's them.

Their judgment might not be good, but their handshake is.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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