As the saying goes you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That is very bad news for freshman State Senator Wayne Langerholc who arguably has made the worst first impression of any legislator in the history of Penn's Woods.
Langerholc is one of three Republican senators who captured seats in last November's election formerly held by Democrats. Their election has given the GOP a veto proof majority in the state senate helping to further tilt the scales in Harrisburg against the big spending policies of Governor Tom Wolf.
But the champagne corks were put back into the bottles when Langerholc decided to renege on a key campaign pledge even before being sworn into office. The result has been an uproar not seen since the rebellion over the middle-of-the-night pay raise a decade ago.
First some background: Langerholc began 2016 as a challenger to long time State Senator John Wozniak in a district sandwiched between Johnstown and Altoona. The district had been trending Republican giving rise to GOP hopes of a pick-up. Wozniak himself realized the hopelessness of his situation and bailed out of the race long before Election Day.
Early on Langerholc made a pledge to the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania (CAP), a Harrisburg-based pro-growth PAC that he would not accept a pension if elected. CAP generally requires such a pension declination of its candidates because it supports pension reform that would move away from the current defined benefits to a defined contribution (401k) style system. (By way of full disclosure I serve on the board of CAP PAC's affiliated nonprofit.)
Having declined the pension and otherwise fitting the profile of a CAP candidate the PAC invested over $15,000.00 in Langerholc's general election campaign including sending a glossy mailer to voters in his district highlighting his pledge not to take the state pension.
But then he did.
Langerholc's reason for breaking his pledge to the taxpayers of his district is clear as mud. As the uproar over his apostasy went viral he offered various explanations. The wayward senator claimed he still supports pension reform and told a Harrisburg television station that he wants all legislators and newly hired state employees in a 401k-style retirement system.
So why not lead by example? Langerholc then offered up another statement employing pretzel logic that resembled John Kerry's infamous "I voted for the bill before I voted against it" comment by claiming he had to sign up for the pension in order to eventually join a 401k-style system. To justify that position he cited provisions in proposed legislation.
But the bottom line is whatever the requirements will be for those currently in the state employees retirement system to move into a 401k-style plan the law will be written by the legislature which, for the moment at least, includes Senator Langerholc. He has quickly learned an old Harrisburg trick: claim to be captive of the very laws you write.
The initial ABC27 report on Langerholc's pension pledge violation quickly spread with the senator's subsequent interviews on the subject becoming more and more convoluted. His response included everything except an admission that he lapped up a perk which many consider to be unconstitutional in the first place. The result was not only a media firestorm, but a viral reaction on Facebook with the senator being called many names not suitable for recounting here.
This dust-up brings into focus the larger issue of candidates for legislative seats signing pledges or responding to candidate questionnaires. The vast majority of organizations from local TEA parties to those who employ professional lobbyists will ask candidates to take a position on issues of importance to them.
The political consulting class and many party leaders are more and more advising if not requiring their candidates to not sign pledges or to fill out questionnaires. They don't want their clients taking stands on tough issues and likely will use the Langerholc kerfuffle as a prime example of what happens when you do.
But when it comes to pledges and questionnaires the solution is not for candidates to refuse to answer. The solution is actually very simple: tell us where you stand, tell us what you will do, and then keep your word.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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