If there is one book that can be called “the definitive” word on Pennsylvania politics, this book by Paul Beers is it. Although printed in 1980 (thus missing events since then), this book captures the state’s history to that point. It is filled with anecdotes, biographies, and the often entertaining stories of what happened amongst generations of Pennsylvania’s politicians.
The author describes Pennsylvania as a state that throughout history has been composed of many diverse people spread out in disconnected communities that it is difficult to politically categorize what it a “Pennsylvania voter” is. Yet, in general, the Pennsylvania electoral throughout time has striven towards political moderation. Further, Pennsylvanians have more generally more apathetic about public policies than residents of other states. The times show Pennsylvania as a state where ethnic politics once had strong influences, political bosses arose, and where general apathy, bossism, and cautious moderation led to a bland political cultural where we gave the nation relatively few prominent national figures.
For Pennsylvania political enthusiasts, it may be discouraging to learn that a public poll found that 91% of Pennsylvanians surveyed did not know which political party controlled the State House and State Senate. This lack of general interest is credited with explaining why reform movements that swept other states never gained footholds in Pennsylvania. Indeed, the author questions the political sensibilities of Pennsylvania voters at times, noting that 831,355 Pennsylvanians voted against a referendum question to legally allow the capitol to be moved from Harrisburg should Harrisburg be destroyed by an atomic attack. (Nah, have the legislature keep meeting in the radioactive crater.)
Taxes, though, are what, throughout history, have gotten Pennsylvania riled-up. From the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when President George Washington had to send troops to calm irate western Pennsylvanians who protested a tax on distilled rye, to Pennsylvania being one of the last states in enact an income tax, Pennsylvanians have seem to most awaken to public controversy when taxes were involved.
The long era of corrupt Republican bosses in Pennsylvania is partly to explain for Pennsylvania’s inability to great many political leaders. The bosses sought compliant backbenchers as leaders. The political machine of Matt Quay followed by Boies Penrose stretched beyond state politics and included control of many local offices and patronage positions. They formed alliances with businesses and with the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA) that, in some sessions, was able to produce laws favorable to the businesses and to PMA members who, in return, financially supported the Republicans. New York industrialist John D. Rockefeller noted in 1880 that “Mr. Quay might be of great use to us in the state, but he is fearfully expensive.”
The Republican machines began breaking down after the death of Boies Penrose in 1929. Penrose had no successor prepared and the factions of the Republican Party split apart. The Vare brothers machine of Philadelphia proven untrustworthy and some political deals fell apart. (Nor was the Vare machine known for their electoral honesty, as noted when voters complained the Vare machine had literally stuffed the ballots so much that legitimate voters had trouble forcing their ballots into the ballot box.) Gifford Pinchot was elected as a progressive candidate, although his first victory for Governor was in a patronage alliance with PMA where his progressivism did not extend to increasing manufacturing regulations or higher corporate taxes. Ironically, Pinchot, who had gained fame as a forester, even cut the budget for forestry development while Governor. This followed a period where business leaders such as members of the Mellon banking family and the Annenberg publishing family supported candidates with whom they agreed, yet they were not as directly involved in politics as were prior business leaders. Franklin Roosevelt brought a national political realignment which also made Pennsylvania more of a two party state. Democrats such as Governors George Earle and George Leader made state government more active in job creation, environmental protection, and making it easier for unions to engage in collective bargaining while Republicans such as Governor Arthur James worked to undo what the Democrats had previously done while progressive Republicans such as Governor Jim Duff defended some of these reform initiatives. Republican Governor Raymond Shafer failed to reach agreement with his own party’s legislative leaders which led to serious budget crises (one budget passed only with a dying legislator voting in absentia) which was finally resolved with the passage of an income tax under Democratic Governor Milton Shapp. Shapp, though, had his own problems with the state legislature. In a century prior to Shapp, the legislature had only overridden a Governor’s veto just once and that was at the Governor’s own request in order to make a change a mistake. The legislature overrode 15 of Shapp’s vetoes.
Legislative specialists will enjoy reading many of the legislative machinations through the ages. Insurgents reconvened a House session in 1921 and seized control of the House to push through $21 million in additional funds for the Governor. Bribes for $4 appropriations went for $1,000 per legislator in 1879. Boies Penrose used to create what he called “squeeze bills”, which was legislation he did not favor but had introduced in order to obtain contributions from interests who wanted him to then kill the bills. During the Depression in 1933, the legislature, in a very rare action, cut its own pay. Governor George Earle once tore up legislation, earning him a lecture from Chief Clerk Richard Heagy who told him “Governor, you may sign a bill or you may veto it, but you may not tear it up.” Honus Wagner, a famous Pittsburgh Pirate baseball player, afterwards worked as a legislative staffer. The 50 State Senators had two lobbyists who were so powerful that Sun Oil lobbyist Harry Princeton Davis was called the “51st Senator” while Pennsylvania Railroad lobbyist William Reiter was called the “52nd Senator”.
This is a history that deserves to be remembers. This book captures that history.