Karen Heller: Harrisburg may actually be helping progressives

Posted: August 08, 2013

Maybe we have been entirely wrong about Harrisburg.

OK, not entirely, but somewhat.

Perhaps Gov. Corbett and the GOP-dominated, city-bashing, poverty-neglecting legislature is actually a gift.

Well, not a gift, but a galvanizing force for progressives, reformers, civil libertarians, and change agents who are sick and tired of Harrisburg's disdain for the sick and tired, huddled masses, children, women, gays, and basically everyone who doesn't look like the legislators, write checks to them, or own a sizable fracking concern.

"Legislative overreach has created a real focus that we can win some of these battles," said State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery-Delaware), a congressional candidate. "There's a lot of energy on the left, and also among moderates."

At this moment, it seems as if every registered Montgomery County Democrat who has held elected office or chaired a high school debate society is running for Congress or governor. The hills of Montco are alive with the sound of candidates!

"I think Montgomery County is becoming an incubator for progressive ideas and meaningful reforms," said Josh Shapiro, county commissioners chairman.

Gay marriage never seemed as if it would be an issue in a commonwealth that legislates as if it is 1959, but, lo and behold, this has become Pennsylvania's big gay wedding summer.

In less than a month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Pennsylvania over the gay marriage ban, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced she would not defend it, and Montgomery County openly defied it, issuing 78 licenses to transform Norristown into the Provincetown of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

County leaders have long searched for ways to revitalize the aging borough. Why not with gay marriage? Happy couples could celebrate at Lou's Sandwich Shop with a zep served on a Conshy roll, the Norristown gustatory treat that makes a hoagie seem like toasted quinoa.

The more Harrisburg tries to limit rights, the more the state ACLU fights back - gay marriage, voter ID, and treatment for the disabled are among the organization's many lawsuits. "We spend a lot of time fighting the ridiculous things going through the Pennsylvania legislature," said senior staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper. "The legislature is much more conservative than the people of Pennsylvania."

Supporters of reproductive health have also mobilized after the legislature and governor pushed hard to restrict access. "We've done well with statewide donor support and activist support," said Planned Parenthood's Dayle Steinberg. "When women's rights are threatened like this, people get angry. And when people get angry, they get energized." In the last two years, Planned Parenthood gained 75,000 Pennsylvania supporters, a jump of 30 percent.

The buzzing governor's race is particularly telling, Leach said. In recent history, "it's been hard to scare up a challenger to run against a Republican incumbent," said Leach. "Now, there are all these candidates. All these issues have a cumulative effect of making it a priority to work against these efforts."

Running to replace Rep. Allyson Schwartz, Leach raised $357,000 last quarter. Nine months before the Democratic gubernatorial primary, there's a crowded field of candidates, including Schwartz and two other women, a feat in a state not known for electing female politicians to top posts.

"No matter what the issue, there's a lot more energy, a lot more money," Leach said. "People feel engaged."

I haven't even mentioned Leach's efforts to legalize marijuana, a back-burner issue in a state that has so many on full boil.

Leach has already officiated at five gay marriages, including one after he shot a round at Ambler's Talamore Country Club. "I just put my clubs down and performed the ceremony," he said. "It was kind of surreal."

But it has been that kind of summer.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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