Friday, May 26, 2006

Penn Hills, Bob, Rick, Voting Challenges and Jon Delano's reporting

I grew up in Penn Hills. I was a classmate of a Garver. Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the good stuff.

Jon Delano wrote a long and detailed saga in his email to PSF (politically Savvy Friends) that is re-posted on the comments section of this blog post. Check it out if you have 5 or 10 minutes and want to gut up to speed with how we are going to pick a US Senator in Pennsylvania.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Either U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is a clever, calculating political strategist whose actions these past ten days have reignited why the junior senator is the odds-on favorite to win reelection -- or -- he just freaked out by allowing a vituperative Penn Hills couple to get so under his skin that he launched an arguably baseless attack on his Democratic opponent, state treasurer Bob Casey.

In this special PSF, let's see if we can sort through some of this. Stick with me if the Santorum-Casey imbroglio strikes your fancy.

This is a somewhat complicated story with roots going back 16 years ago to Santorum's upset of then U.S. Rep. Doug Walgren of Mt. Lebanon. Rick charged that Doug did not live in Pittsburgh because Walgren kept his wife and kids with him in their home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Walgren, who grew up in Pittsburgh, used his life-long family residence as his domicile for voting and taxes. As for his family, Walgren said a member of Congress should keep his young family close to him where he works. That counsel was lost on Santorum who had just married Karen Garver, had no children yet, and wasn't as focused on "family values" as he is today. [WTAE-TV's Bob Mayo ran a clip from that 1990 campaign last night where Santorum back then said, "We're going to raise our family here."].

But while that ancient political history incites Rick's opponents to shout "hypocrite," the modern day version of this tale really begins nine years ago, during Santorum's third year in the U.S. Senate. In late 1997, the Santorums bought a 3-bedroom house on Stephens Lane in Penn Hills for $87,800 (now assessed at $106,000). It's a beautiful neighborhood with modest homes and very nice people. [I've talked to many of them.] It's also familiar territory to the Santorums, since Karen grew up in the much bigger home next door, still occupied by her parents. Universally, the neighbors speak very highly of the Garvers with "wonderful people" being the most common accolade. That contrasts sharply with their view of Santorum, at least as articulated in 2006.

Initially, neighbors tell me, the young Santorum family actually lived in that house, but it wasn't long before Rick moved his clan to the Washington suburbs. Today, the Santorums live on Tobermory Place in Leesburg, Virginia, in a $757,000 home that looks pretty posh by most standards. [I have seen several pictures of the place]. This is Santorum's second home in Virginia, bought in 2001, after one first purchased in 1995 in that state was sold. Karen home-schools her six children in Leesburg. Back in Pittsburgh, neighbors say the Stephens Lane home was left empty, although in recent years, it was occupied by Alyssa DeLuca (Karen's niece) and her husband Bart. Neighbors say that this couple moved out before Easter this year, leaving the house empty again.

Enter Ed and Erin Vecchio, a Penn Hills couple, who even their friends describe as a bit whacky, opinionated, and, well, unpredictable. Erin is the chair of the Penn Hills Democratic Committee and a member of the Penn Hills School Board. It's in that latter capacity that she first received some notoriety for her relentless attacks on the senator over the infamous cyber school issue.

Even as his kids were being home schooled in Virginia, the Santorums enrolled five of their children in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, charging the Penn Hills School District for the cost thereof. Vecchio says Santorum owes more than $100,000 in tuition fees for committing a fraud on Penn Hills taxpayers when he was no longer a resident of Penn Hills. Once the objection was made, the Santorums withdrew their kids from the cyber school, or at least no longer made any claims against the school district, but refused to reimburse the Penn Hills School District for past fees paid on behalf of their kids.

The school district took up the case, arguing before a hearing officer of the PA Department of Education that the Santorum children were not residents of Penn Hills, notwithstanding their parents paid school property taxes on the Stephens Lane home, and that back payments were owed. Unfortunately for Penn Hills, last July hearing officer Barry Kramer ruled, on a technicality, that the school district was too late in making this claim. Kramer said the district only had seven days from the time of enrollment to object to the Santorum's enrollment of their children, and so could not object on December 8, 2004, to enrollments made on July 9, 2003, and July 23, 2004.

Santorum immediately called a press conference with Karen in front of the State Office Building in Pittsburgh, and claimed "the school district's allegations have been rejected." Not exactly. The allegations of residency, in fact, were never heard on their merits because, as any lawyer knows, the case was dismissed for not being filed in a timely matter. In any case, the senator claimed victory, eager to move on. The Vecchios, to no one's surprise, won't let it drop. Not only is the cyber school matter being appealed, but they moved on other fronts.

On Primary Election Day (May 16), Rick and Karen Santorum showed up early to vote at the Forbes Elementary School, not far from Stephens Lane. One nearby neighbor said the Santorums were in residence on Stephens Lane for the Mother's Day weekend which coincided with election day. The neighbor said, before their arrival, she saw several mattresses being delivered to the house. When the Santorums arrived at the polls, Ed Vecchio was there to greet them, sort of. [In 2004, Erin Vecchio had accosted Rick at this same polling place in an altercation that both Rick and Erin would later describe as rather ugly]. This year's greeting consisted of Vecchio challenging the senator's right to vote, asking the local judge of elections at the polling place to deny the Santorums a ballot.

Now, under PA law, any citizen can challenge another person's right to vote. The procedure is for the local judge of election to require the person being challenged to sign an affidavit in which the person states, under oath, that they do reside at the specific local residence. Additionally, the person being challenged must also get another voter to sign, under oath, that he/she knows the challenged person is a local resident. That did not happen to the Santorums at Forbes Elementary. The local judge of election was apparently brand new and did not understand the law. She let the Santorums vote on the electronic machine without swearing, under oath, that they lived in Penn Hills. The next day, Ed Vecchio delivered a letter to the Elections Department, asking that the department deny the Santorums a vote at this polling district in the future. The Vecchio letter has been sent to the county law department! , where today Santorum's lawyer delivered a 5-page response letter, citing federal and state law that would seem to allow the senator and his wife to vote.
It was during the press interviews that Ed Vecchio had at the polls on election day that the current controversy was born. Vecchio told the media: "He [meaning Santorum] doesn't live here. The house he's registered to vote out of is vacant, no curtains, furniture, nothing in there. It's abandoned for over a month, so I feel it's my right to contest his vote."

Karen Santorum, says the senator's campaign, overheard these remarks and immediately became concerned that someone was prowling around their property, looking into windows. Instead of calling the Penn Hills Police to report these concerns, Karen chose instead to call the Capitol Hill Police in Washington, D.C. This special police force is charged with protecting Capitol Hill properties and the security of members of Congress. Late that election day, Ron Machesky, the public safety director of Penn Hills, received a call from the Capitol Police. Machesky is a veteran law enforcement official, former chief of the Uniontown Police and security official at the University of Pittsburgh. He says the Capitol Police relayed Mrs. Santorum's concerns, and he took it seriously. He beefed up patrols on Stephens Lane with officers actually driving up the driveway, getting out of the vehicle and physically checking ! the residence.

Whether, in fact, anyone ever really prowled around the property may never be known. The Vecchios deny ever going on the property, saying it was "common knowledge" in the neighborhood that the home was vacant. The nearby neighbors seem to confirm that general belief. Whether true or not, the place appeared empty to them.

This story might have died with no one knowing much about it had not KDKA-TV's Ralph Iannotti broke the story on Thursday night (May 18) about Penn Hills Police providing special protection for the Santorum home on Stephens Lane. By that point, the Santorums were back in Leesburg, so the police were guarding an unoccupied home. In the first story, Iannotti reported comments from John Brabender, Santorum's media strategist. For the first time, the Santorum campaign linked the alleged prowling to politics: "It's hardball politics, looking into people's homes. For someone to be stalking their house for political reasons is nothing short of unconscionable." On camera, Erin Vecchio denied any kind of trespassing. "If you want me to take a lie detector test to say I wasn't on that property, go for it, because I and my husband will take a lie detector test," she saidS, adding, "Will you take a lie dete! ctor test, Rick, to say that you ever lived in that house?"

At this point, the Santorum campaign was not linking Democrat Bob Casey or his campaign to "stalking" the Stephens Lane house, but that changed on Friday (May 19). In a "Dear Bob" letter to Casey, both Rick and Karen Santorum wrote, "We are writing to express our outrage regarding the actions of your campaign, which have put our six young children at a serious safety risk. Last night, we learned with deep dismay that a Casey operative admitted on KDKA-TV to trespassing on our property and viewing the inside of our home. Further, your campaign issued a press release yesterday that falsely says that we do not stay in our Penn Hills home. This reckless statement is not only a lie, but alerts those who may want to enter the home illegally. Your despicable actions have greatly endangered our children's safety."

On a factual level, as Iannotti noted on KDKA-TV last night, nobody admitted to him to trespassing on or viewing the inside of the Santorum home. [You can check out to view Iannotti's story yourself]. But on the much more interesting political level, the Santorum campaign made a calculated decision last Friday to elevate this story by blaming Casey for the alleged prowling.

The Casey campaign responded immediately. Bob and Terese Casey issued a statement: "We are outraged that Sen. Santorum is making false and malicious charges and bringing our families and the Casey campaign into a long-running dispute he has with Penn Hills residents about his residency status." The Casey campaign went wild, charging Santorum, in essence, with calling the police to divert attention from his cyber school problems. Casey's campaign denied that the Vecchios have anything to do with their campaign, issuing this press release: "They are Penn Hills residents acting independently because they are upset that Santorum stuck them with tens of thousands of dollars in cyber school bills. Maybe Santorum doesn�t recognize them because he lives in Virginia. Why doesn�t Santorum just fess up and say he lives in Virginia? Why is he going through these contortions about his residency? Because if he says that he lives! in Virginia, he�ll have to repay Penn Hills for the cyber school bill."

Now both campaigns jumped into high gear, emailing supporters and the media with charges and countercharges. Santorum himself went on Fred Honsberger's KDKA Radio show on Friday afternoon and, in an obviously angry voice, said, "What's the guy doing at my house? This is my house. My house doesn't sit on the street. It sits about 30-yards back off the street. It's want to play politics. Leave my family alone." And he again linked it all to Casey, saying, "This guy won't debate. He won't talk about issues. He won't do anything, but he'll support people who will look in my windows and find out what's going on in my house. This is ridiculous."

The Casey campaign responded, accusing Santorum of "an outrageous, false attack," and adding, "This maneuver reeks of desperation and just goes to show that Rick Santorum will say or do anything to put up a smokescreen in front of the fact that he simply doesn't live in Pennsylvania."

Again, the matter might have died over the weekend, except the Santorum campaign decided to take it a notch up. Santorum cut a radio commercial [also on the Santorum website] that attacks Casey directly: "According to a KDKA investigative report, a Casey operative admitted to trespassing at the Santorum's home in Penn Hills, peering into the windows, looking for campaign dirt." Again, nothing in Iannotti's reports has anyone admitting to that, but Santorum's campaign tells me you can draw an "inference" from Vecchio's comments that he looked into the windows. The Casey campaign, perhaps getting tired of it all, responded, "There is no evidence of anyone trespassing on property. Santorum has obviously weirded himself out and is resorting to false attack ads with no basis in reality."

Weirded himself out? Who writes this stuff?

This Wednesday, Santorum appeared on Marty Griffin's KDKA Radio show and seemed to backtrack a bit on the charge that Casey's hands are all over the alleged snooping on his property. And in response to Marty's question about pulling the negative campaign ads that credits KDKA for wrong information, Santorum said he's talked to his people and it's time to "move on." The ad seems to have been withdrawn. Casey himself has not been particularly visible, although his press people certainly have. Last night (Thursday), Casey appeared on John McIntire's KDKA Radio show where he accused Santorum of "a deliberate effort to mislead." He said Santorum needed to "be honest, be straight" about where he really lives, saying Santorum "can't pretend to live in one place when you live in another." Casey denied that the Vecchios were his campaign operatives, and he said Santorum's problem was with Penn Hills residents,! not with the Casey campaign. Then, like Rick said on Marty's show, Bob said it was time to move on.

Alas, the story now has a life of its own. Turns out that the Santorums also requested a "security check" of his Penn Hills home by the Capitol Hill Police. Now congressional folks tell me that this is somewhat unusual, but perfectly legal. The Capitol Police, on request by a member of Congress, will send one of their agents to the home residence or home district office to check out security concerns.

So Wednesday afternoon, with a half dozen reporters and TV cameras camped out on Stephens Lane, one Capitol Hill Police agent, accompanied by Santorum's brother-in-law, spent an hour-and-a-quarter walking in and out of the Santorum home, taking lots of pictures and presumably assessing security needs against a presumed prowler that Casey's campaign believes is fictitious. The agent wasn't talking, but in response to a shouted out question from me -- "How secure is the home?" -- he responded, "Very secure." Of course, he's not likely to say anything else.

Penn Hills' Machesky, the public safety director, insists the extra patrols have not cost Penn Hills taxpayers money, but the patrols are coming to an end. He says the police have uncovered no evidence of prowlers on the site, and that continued "extra" patrols would be "a waste of time." Machesky told me that there is "nothing to indicate there's a threat" out at Santorum's home. Neighbors wonder what all this fuss is about. While there was a burglary in January on a nearby street, most folks think the neighborhood is safe with no signs of prowlers.

A couple neighbors suggested Santorum could install a private security system like his in-laws have, and one fellow said the best way to keep the home safe was to live in it -- not likely given the senator's obligations in Washington. All this fuss, however, is likely to bring Rick and his family back to Stephens Lane more often. The Santorums are expected to spend the week-long Memorial Day break in Penn Hills. Given that a number of his neighbors say they never see him, perhaps he should invite them all over for a picnic!

So what are we to make of all this? Did Santorum succeed in pinning a negative label on Bob Casey? Did Casey have anything to do with the Vecchios? After all, the Vecchios may have had Santorum in their sights for many years, but they ARE local Democratic Party leaders, they do support Casey, and they admit they want to "bring Santorum down." If someone says there's no furniture in a home, isn't it a reasonable "inference" to suggest they peered into a window?

Or did Casey succeed in making people question Santorum's veracity and, more importantly, resurrect the old stories of Santorum's residency in Penn Hills? Part of the problem is that Rick seems unwilling to state the obvious -- he really does not live in Penn Hills except for legal purposes. His campaign spokesperson, Virginia Davis, was straight when she said on election day that the senator has to be in Washington most of the time to vote in the Senate. She added that the senator had to "maintain" a second home. Of course, unstated, the "second" home is the one in Penn Hills, not the primary home that he and his family go home to almost every night in Leesburg, Virginia. But what's the big deal about that?

Fundamentally, all the local media focus (and some statewide and national attention as well) on Stephens Lane in Penn Hills reminds everyone of that Tip O'Neill adage that all politics is local. Santorum may be the third ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, but he's getting more attention in Pennsylvania these days on his local residency, his right to vote, and his concerns about political prowlers than about those big issues that he must confront on the Senate floor. In many ways, that's a sad comment on our political process. But Santorum got that extra scrutiny this week because of his own actions, at each stage elevating the dispute. Still, the question remains, is Rick clever like a fox, or a victim of political opportunists?

Everyone has an opinion, so feel free to share yours with me. If I've missed something, let me know. And, most importantly, enjoy this Memorial Day Weekend, remembering the sacrifices of so many men and women who died protecting our right to engage in this kind of political exchange. Happy Memorial Day!


Jon Delano
Political Analyst
H. John Heinz School of Public Policy & Management
Carnegie Mellon University

[As always, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful organizations with whom I am associated].