Cheating increases incumbent home-court advantage
State House candidate Jim Marshall's parents, Bob and Peg Marshall, pose for a portrait inside the room at their home which served as their son's campaign headquarters.
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The contrasts couldn't have been more stark.
When Jim Marshall challenged incumbent Democrat Mike Veon for a state House seat in 2006, he put his 84-year-old mother to work hand-addressing 6,000 campaign post cards. His brother-in-law Pat Montani, meanwhile, whipped up hundreds of meatballs for a campaign dinner at a firehouse.
His family bought a used copy machine so an all-volunteer team could make black-and-white copies of campaign fliers. Even the "Vote Marshall" campaign button that his father still sometimes wears is recycled. It came from Mr. Marshall's brother Robert's campaign for village council in Clemmons, N.C.
The whole campaign operation was run out of Mr. Marshall's childhood bedroom in his parents' home in Big Beaver.
Meanwhile, in Mr. Veon's well-orchestrated but illegal campaign, state workers were sent in droves from Harrisburg to campaign door-to-door and distribute literature for weeks at a time in Beaver County. They stayed in a run-down motel where carpets were stained, bathroom tiles were missing and blankets were singed with cigarette burns.
Back in Harrisburg, other state-paid workers ran a campaign phone bank and created a sophisticated operation on the top floor of the Capitol. In Mr. Veon's Beaver Falls district office, state workers who were being paid to help voters instead planned elaborate fund-raisers down to minute details such as the color of table linens, the size of boxes to be used for candy giveaways and the graphic design of fund-raiser invitations.
Staffers ordered ice sculptures, delivered cases of wine and arranged for personalized cigars to be made for a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser.
At the same time, the Marshall family was rolling meatballs by hand and shopping at Sam's Club for supplies for a $10-a-ticket dinner at a fire house, where supporters ate pasta, salad and sheet cake.
In the end, it didn't matter because Mr. Marshall defeated Mr. Veon to win the seat, but Mr. Veon's use of state employees in his own campaign and others across the state led to his conviction in the public corruption case known as Bonusgate. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday for his conviction on 14 charges related to his role in paying state bonuses of $1.8 million to employees for work on his campaign and others.
His former district office manager Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink, 43, is to be sentenced on five counts.
"What it boils down to is basically theft of democracy," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause PA. "Clearly, the playing field is tilted heavily in favor of incumbents in an extremely unfair manner -- and it's being done with taxpayer dollars."
Mr. Marshall's 2006 win was a feat that had little to do with campaign prowess and everything to do with voter outrage over a pay raise debacle Mr. Veon helped orchestrate the year before. Mr. Veon was the only unapologetic lawmaker to refuse to repeal the legislative pay hikes, which had been approved in the middle of the night and with no public notice.
Mr. Marshall -- whose only prior political experience was on council for Big Beaver, a borough of 2,200 -- takes no credit for that win.
"It wasn't a vote for me. It was a vote 'not for Mr. Veon,' " said Mr. Marshall, 50. "The timing was right."
Jay Paisley, now 65, saw the opportunity, too, and ran against Mr. Veon, now 53, in the Democratic primary that year. He lost and subsequently threw his support behind Republican Marshall.
"I didn't just run as a lark. My goal was to defeat him, and I thought I had a chance. It was a rare situation in which the public was enraged," Mr. Paisley said recently over sandwiches at Evergreen Restaurant in Beaver Falls.
"If you don't have a situation where the public is enraged, you have no chance against an incumbent because the deck is so stacked against you. The game is rigged."
Mr. Veon knew he was in the race of his life and used every resource at his disposal, legal and illegal, to run his campaigns, Mr. Paisley and others said.
"Even when you're a kid, you don't like to play a game with somebody that cheats," Mr. Marshall said.
"It's unfair for candidates to have to run against incumbents using taxpayer equipment and state employees to run their races. There is harm there. Challengers are shut out, and that's not good for the taxpayers, for the state workers, for the voters, for anyone."
The goal of Team Veon was to visit the homes of every voter in the district. They were dedicated to their task, even when they encountered constituents still incensed by Mr. Veon's unapologetic attitude toward the pay raise.
"People were swearing at them, slamming doors in their faces and pushing them off porches, but they didn't care because they were state workers and they were being paid," Mr. Paisley said. "It was like panning for gold. They'd find the ones that support [Veon] and then make sure they got to the polls."
Volunteer campaigners encountering that kind of animosity wouldn't have lasted, Mr. Paisley said.
Mr. Marshall's family campaigned door-to-door, too, but without the troupe of Harrisburg staffers armed with maps and clipboards. They hit the streets as a threesome; Mrs. Marshall would drop off her son and husband Bob, who would each campaign on one side of the street; then she'd meet them at the other end to pick them up and take them to another neighborhood.
"What we did was really grass-roots," Mr. Marshall said.
While Mr. Veon's campaign crimes didn't pay off in his own race, they may have helped other Democratic candidates. According to testimony and evidence, he dispatched state employees to work on more than a dozen other races and to challenge nominating petitions to keep third-party candidates from running.
The effect would be difficult to calculate, but the illegal campaign work could have a made a difference in the closest of those contests, said political scientist Lara Brown of Villanova University. In most cases, though, incumbents and party-backed candidates already have so many legal advantages that illegal campaigning wouldn't have made a difference, she said.
They have work schedules conducive to campaigning, the standing to generate media attention, production staffs to create state-funded public service announcements and legislative newsletters, the power to attract contributions from lobbyists and the influence to get grants for pork-barrel projects that endear them to voters. All of that is legal.
With those kind of advantages -- and in the absence of a scandal such as the 2005 raise debacle -- the likelihood of incumbents losing is so low that they'd have to be "power-hungry, paranoid and kind of foolish to engage in illegal activities," Dr. Brown said. "Their misdeeds are really disproportionate to the threats that are really in the environment."
Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, isn't surprised by incumbents' extraordinary and sometimes illegal campaign activities. Incumbents have a consuming, manic fear they're going to lose, he said.
Close elections can send them into a panic, he said.
Decisive wins by incumbents discourage competition, build credibility and inspire colleagues to support efforts to win leadership positions, Dr. Miller said.
Prosecutors underscored the unfair advantage for candidates who used state-paid campaign staff in a recent sentencing memorandum advocating stiff punishment for Bonusgate crimes. In it, senior deputy attorneys general Patrick Blessington and Frank Fina said Team Veon victimized voters by depriving them of real choices in elections.
"What is not so readily apparent is the victimization of the potential candidate -- namely someone who contemplates a candidacy but is cowed by the vast taxpayer-funded resources of the Team Veon machine, and ultimately decides not to run," Mr. Blessington and Mr. Fina wrote.
The crimes, they said, "struck at the very heart of representative government."
Democrats aren't the only ones who used taxpayer resources for campaigns. In a related corruption case, associates of the House GOP allegedly used $20 million in state-owned computer technology and data to help run campaigns.
Four years later, Mr. Marshall hasn't forgotten the frustration of running against an incumbent who used legal and illegal advantages to protect his seat. However, he finds no joy in knowing Mr. Veon could be imprisoned for many years.
"I don't have any personal bad feelings against Mr. Veon. We're all taught to turn the other cheek," he said. "Justice should be served, but I have no vendetta against Mike Veon."
Mr. Paisley isn't as forgiving.
"I was pleased he was convicted," Mr. Paisley said. "Sincerely, I don't wish him any ill will, and I don't think he should be in jail 20 years, but I'd like to see him serve a few months."
First Published June 17, 2010 12:00 am