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Pa lawmakers say rotunda rallies unpersuasive

Kari Andren

Nancy Richey stepped to the podium with a microphone at the Capitol rotunda with the hope that the right people would hear her message.

She rallied a crowd of more than 100 sign-toting people with disabilities and their advocates and service providers. They lined the white marble steps, chanting "Keep your promise!" in protest of $168 million in proposed cuts to community mental and behavioral health services and assistance to the homeless.

"The rallies are our only voice in a public way. It's important legislators realize the volume of people we're talking about," said Richey, a York County resident and vice president of The Arc of Pennsylvania, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Moments later, a procession of 100 municipal employees and mental health providers in matching purple and gold T-shirts _ members of Service Employees International Union Local 668 _ streamed through the rotunda on their way to Gov. Tom Corbett's office from a rally against proposed budget cuts elsewhere in the Capitol.

It's peak season for rallies in and around the Capitol as lawmakers begin budget deliberations.

Many legislators say these boisterous, colorful events do little to shape their opinions or alter votes. They say personal, informative conversations or letters are more persuasive.

"Of the forms of communication, rallies are probably the least effective. ... We don't spend our time in the rotunda listening to rallies," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. "I don't personally _ and I would hope most legislators would not _ do an about-face on an issue because of a noisy rally or a stack of petitions. Positions are developed over time, based on a lot of information."

"What I care about is hearing from my constituents. ... The rallies in the Capitol, that doesn't really move me at all because they bus people in," said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield. "When somebody sends me an email personally, I pay attention."

Despite legislators' sentiments about these gatherings, during one week in May, people gathered for 15 rallies and press conferences at the Capitol and its grounds, including one that drew hundreds of children to rally for school choice vouchers and an expanded Educational Improvement Tax Credit to help low-income families afford private schools.

By the time Corbett signs a budget into law at the end of June, people will have vied for his attention and that of the 235 lawmakers through more than 80 rallies and news conferences. Among those in recent weeks: advocates for brain injury awareness, gun rights, Earth Day, education and social services.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he wants people to tell him in one-on-one meetings how the legislation they're advocating fits into a mindset of fiscally responsible spending or private-sector job creation.

"In the end, those are kind of my benchmarks for determining whether we're going in the right direction," Turzai said. "I want to hear a rational argument: What's the evidence that there's a problem? What's the solution to the problem? And how narrow is your solution tailored to the problem? The more narrowly tailored ... the more I'm interested in hearing."

Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said rallies mean something to him, but other mass-delivery methods are not as effective.

"The absolute worst way I feel to (try to influence lawmakers) is by spam email. It's so impersonal," Pyle said. Constituents can call him anytime, he said, because "I never took my number out of the book, and that's intentional."

When people from his district make the more than 200-mile trip to Harrisburg to rally for a cause, "that's the ace in the deck. That lets me know they care," he said.

Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said campaign contributions from interest groups also play a role in voting habits.

"Money matters. Candidates need it, they spend a lot of time raising it, and they need a lot of it to get back into office," Borick said. "The idea that money is coming with no strings attached is really hard to believe. Of course there are strings."

However, he said, in some instances, public demonstrations channel so much fury, they not only get noticed but effect change.

When lawmakers approved a pay raise for themselves and other state officials about 2 a.m. July 7, 2005, widespread voter outrage led to statewide protests and at least one rally that brought thousands of people _ and an iconic pink inflatable pig _ to the Capitol steps.

"Part of generating that disgust was the work of the petitions and the protests and the rallies," Borick said. "The public was seeing that, and it was helping to stoke the general public's resentment of the pay raises."

More than 50 lawmakers retired or were defeated in the next election; lawmakers repealed the raises that November.

"It's a rare occasion when something occurs like the pay raise, and there is such a furor that ... we can have an impact," said Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg reform activist who took his inflatable pig to 36 sites statewide after the pay raise.

"You have to tie it to the legislators' election chances the next time around, and you have to not only be at the Capitol in Harrisburg but take it to legislators' home county and home newspapers and home TV stations to have an impact."


Those who plan and observe rallies about political issues say attracting media attention can be as important as catching the eye of policymakers. Organizers typically reinforce a rally message with personal visits to lawmakers' offices. Here's what they say makes an event successful:

Plan ahead: "If you say you're going to have 5,000 people there and only 200 show up, you really look like a jerk. Make sure the numbers are right on target," said Dave Fillman, executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most state employees.

Think long-term: "It's a question of persistence, a continuation of the effort," said Harrisburg reform activist Gene Stilp. "You have to treat it as a marathon and not as a 100-yard dash. People have to be citizens not just one day a year when they come to a press conference; they have to be citizens every day of the year."

Stay on message: Some rallies draw a crowd but involve so many advocacy groups that there's no clear take-away message, Fillman said. "We try to have folks bring homemade signs, (and) we try to have them zero in on ... usually cuts in the budget and why the cuts aren't fair."

Use visuals: "Using symbolic gestures really does have an effect. ... We're a visual society," said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "Things like blown-up pigs _ it might look funny, but it calls attention. If you want to get the attention of legislators, it's just as important to get the attention of the media and the general public."




Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,

The Associated Press