Meet Mr. Serious

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If there is a bed in Room 1015 at the Renaissance Hotel it has yet to announce itself. Instead, Bill Scranton's entourage clusters around a long table, chairs scattered about. On a nearby couch, Robin Ross, an old retainer from the Dick Thornburgh administration is explaining his BlackBerry hand-held to Bill Green, another old Thornburgh guy.

Young Scranton, whose dreams of being governor 19 years ago vanished in the acrid smoke of a scorched-earth campaign, has his elbows on the table and his ear to the phone. Talk radio waits for no man and Mr. Scranton has a story to tell.

Finally done with another interview, he kicks around what he's about to tell a crowd downstairs. A day earlier, he announced his campaign for governor in the hometown that bears his family name. In Pittsburgh, he'll tap into a strange anger that has been floating for three months after the Legislature -- a Republican Legislature -- voted itself a pay-raise that did a rhino dance across both the constitution and the feelings of the voters.

"I don't think it was constitutional," Mr. Scranton explains. "I've been very vocal on it and I've upset some very good members of the House and Senate. I think it's a defining issue."

Defining himself is what William Scranton III has been about for the past two years. After a 1986 election in which his opponent defined him as a feckless rich boy who dabbled in weirdo meditation when he wasn't busy firing up the bong, Mr. Scranton is back as a Brooks Brothers-suited middle-road conservative with one ear on the business community and another on an electorate prepared to throw ropes over the lampposts if they can get their hands on the likes of state House Speaker John Perzel and any legislator suspected of sympathizing with the pay raise.

Mr. Scranton, of course, is not running for speaker of the House. He's running for governor of Pennsylvania and as such, he needs to divert the anger at the Legislature in the direction of incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell.

"My thoughts are really what the governor ought to do to protect the Constitution," Mr. Scranton says. As such, Mr. Rendell's signature on the budget bill, passed at 2 a.m. without debate, broke faith with the very document Mr. Scranton's father helped to pass in 1968. It precludes midterm pay raises for legislators who simply created the fiction that the money they are getting is "unvouchered expenses," meaning money for which they don't have to account.

But Mr. Scranton's playbook features far more than an anti-pay raise blitz. He would abandon the Rendell administration's theory of economic development-through-bond issues. Property tax reform, which essentially means requiring referendum votes in school districts looking to raise millage, comes straight out of the populist bible. Casino gambling strikes him as a false god at best, a political scam at worst. He wants to drastically change the workers' compensation law in ways that are likely to put unions on a war footing both in this election and, should it come to pass, the next Scranton administration. Abortion and guns, long the twin hobgoblins of Pennsylvania politics, go unmentioned the entire night.

Downstairs, Mr. Scranton shows how far he has come in changing from the patrician moderate who entered Pennsylvania politics 28 years ago into a conservative adept at dealing with the top-spin of hard-right sentiments.

Along with such shibboleths as "tort-reform," he brings up immigration.

Pennsylvanians, he says, "want a growing state that welcomes next generation immigrants. New Americans who come to Pennsylvania legally, through the front, not the back door. A state that protects our borders and enforces the law."

This sort of thing might make sense in Philadelphia, but in the state's west, and much of its center, the problem is emigration, not immigration, and this coded language appeals more to a Richard Mellon Scaife than an Elsie Hillman. Whether such bridges can be built without crossing over from reality remains unclear.

"I've heard a lot about it while I'm out on the stump," Mr. Scranton explains later. Twenty years ago, hearing such a thing would not necessarily have meant Mr. Scranton would have listened, much less repeated it. Today, he returns to politics slightly more attuned to external voices. This much is clear when, asked if immigration is sensibly a concern in a gubernatorial race in a population losing state, his answer is:

"In terms of peoples' concern about it, I would say yes."

Thus does a patrician become a populist.

But if the immigration remark strikes a slightly discordant note, his fixation on detail drives home several points: notably that he still sees the Republicans as the party of business and free markets, and that William Scranton III is the antidote to the breezy and detail-free optimism of his primary rival, Lynn Swann, a putative candidate who has yet to grant an in-depth interview to a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Mr. Swann's reticence to talk policy has given the field to Mr. Scranton and two other lesser-known opponents, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, and Jim Panyard, retired president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association.

In terms of policy, Mr. Scranton has combined his populist reform rhetoric with some surprisingly specific views on fundamental economic theories. After the announcement, he relaxed at that long table and talked about:

First things: "The first thing I would do is I would cap the growth in state spending. Second, I would go through all the programs of the state, and this would take more than a year obviously, and take cost out of what the state does: economic programs and etcetera."

Workers' compensation. "It becomes much easier to receive benefits over a long period of time and it doesn't encourage able-bodied people to get back to work in a way that we ought to be and it is very costly to employers in this state and it gives us a reputation as a state that is not friendly to job-creation."

Minimum wage. "If you have a state that is obsessed with the minimum wage as opposed to creating more jobs, or higher-paying jobs for people, then you have a state whose focus is on the wrong thing. You're not going to be able to eat with the minimum wage. You're not going to be able to support a family. You're not going to be able to support your financial independence. And, every time, it seems, when we get into a recession, or get into trouble, it seems we say 'OK, let's raise the minimum wage,' which is, from a standpoint of having an effect on peoples' lives, more window dressing than anything else."

Education. "Vouchers." He doesn't even try to disguise the word.

Political campaigns consist in large measure of pleasant chin music that can be tested simply by stating the opposite and seeing if it sounds silly. No one runs as an anti-reform candidate. It is the rare office-seeker who promises to spend recklessly or reduce employment. Seriousness is measured in details, and Mr. Scranton has taken the early risk of putting his out there for opponents to probe. He is thinking things through. This suggests that, regardless of whether he wins the Republican primary, he will set its agenda.


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


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