In the past couple of weeks I interviewed PA House district 158 Democratic challenger Susan Rzucidlo and incumbent Republican representative Chris Ross. I am grateful to both of them for their time and willingness to be interviewed in the interest of helping bring their concrete positions and views to the attention of voters; my own views are not relevant here. The questions were basically the same for both, with the needed changes for background, party identification, and priorities. I took notes and render the answers below to the best of my ability; no one else was present and no recordings were made. Both were given a chance to modify my write-ups to clarify and correct as needed. Neither has seen any part of the interview with the other as of the moment of posting.
Why are you running for reelection to the state House of Representatives?
I have unfinished business with the legislature; I want to follow through on a couple of key issues. I have the energy and enthusiasm to deliver good service for the 158th district. I have a fair amount of experience and I am willing to put in the long hours needed.
Do you find running for office to be quite a sacrifice of time and energy?
Yes, campaigning and service are both challenging. I treat it as a full-time job. I meet constituents on weekends, in evenings, early in the mornings. I hold regular hours in my Kennett Square office and study a broad range of issues. I deal with constituent mail, talk behind the scenes with other legislators, and travel back and forth to Harrisburg. It’s a challenge in time management!
Do you enjoy politics?
Generally, yes. It’s an interesting challenge to get the information, have the conversations, and find good practical and achievable policy solutions. In Harrisburg the issues go back and forth between the House, the Senate, and the Governor.
The Marcellus Shale issue, for example, went back and forth, with a strong difference between the eastern and western parts of the state. It was a challenge to apply environmental standards and seek revenue to offset the potential harm from gas extraction. There are very difficult challenges for the residents. Governor Rendell couldn’t settle it. The fees go beyond the cost of permits and regulations; it required a compromise.
The result was a complex formula that shifts the fee according to each well’s year of operation and level of production. It’s a tax structure different from other states. I asked and never got clarification: how does a well in Pennsylvania compare to, say, West Virginia and Texas in total corporate and local taxes? I was comfortable with a higher rate and severance tax (going beyond a “fee”).
The fees have already raised $200,000,000 in revenue for the state, funding roads and emergency services, conservation districts, and the Growing Greener program.
You and your opponent both have background as small business owners; is that a good background for office and does it give you anything in common?
Yes, a small business background is useful. I have the experience of managing a business, making a profit in up and down economies, setting and meeting budgets, responsibility for workers, being a fair employer. I am concerned about producing jobs; I have a good sense of what makes it easier to start a business and prosper. Businesses need clear regulations; they hate the undependability when circumstances change rapidly. Businesses need confidence to invest and the State needs to maintain a good climate for all types of businesses.
My experience as a township supervisor in London Grove is also useful, in areas like environment, legal issues, landowners’ rights, building and housing, and restrictions on the zoning ability of municipalities. On the Urban Affairs committee, important land use issues come up.
How would your training and professional experience influence you in office? Are more legislators with your training and experience needed in Harrisburg?
My colleagues in the legislature have broad prior experience in meeting payrolls, medicine, insurance, accounting, law, as veterinarians and funeral directors. It’s good to have experts in such fields when what we do affects people’s lives. When bills come up in Harrisburg, those with no business experience often make naïve suggestions; my background is helpful.
Some government programs, such as tax credits and incentives, sound good; but do they actually encourage business here or is the incentive reward just taken? I voted against the ethane cracker plant because a business should not get a subsidy if it is going to locate in the state anyhow. The bulk of jobs are in small business because the state has a good business climate. The most important thing is to be fair.
What is your campaign motto and why?
I don’t have one per se, but my general philosophy is to represent people fairly, think about their needs, and live up to their standards when dong their business. Some legislators lose that aspect. We need to remember the people paying taxes and be thoughtful of those facing challenges.
This is a tough time. I came to the legislature when Jane Orie did. Any betrayal of the public trust is disappointing, but only 8 or 9 members of the General Assembly have gotten in trouble since I started, out of 253 at any one time in the House, and a total of a thousand over the years I’ve been there. But those cases are high profile.
What do you think about the decisions that have been made in Harrisburg the last couple of years?
I’ve supported some decisions but vote independently. Sometimes I am one of only 2 or 3 legislators to vote No. Overall I think Harrisburg is doing a decent job with reduced resources.
We are aiming to improve the business climate and remove annoyances like the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax. The department of Public Welfare needs overhaul. We are pushing to deliver services efficiently; we’ve had some successes and some failures.
The pension crisis needs a real fix: the cost must be reduced, as it is eating into the state budget. Infrastructure needs work: roads, bridges, mass transit. Good infrastructure saves money in travel time. The public needs confidence that its money is being used well in a way that creates jobs.
What are your 3 or 4 most important issues?
Economy and job climate
Delivering services more efficiently
Why are the economy and job climate such an important issue for you?
The state needs to press ahead. We need the best quality jobs we can get. We need to improve training, get workers trained, improve infrastructure, and create a fair business climate with clear taxes and regulations. We need to attract investors who will create jobs and stay in the state.
Why is delivering services more efficiently such an important issue for you?
We’re not going to have any influx of money; we need to think carefully about what we have. The PA House cut its own budget and reduced staff and outside counsel expenses.
I support reducing the number of House members. 150 would be better than the current 253, though that would mean larger districts. The bill passed in the House and is now in the Senate, which has to act on it, even though Senate size is not involved.
Why is the environment among your leading issues?
I support developing renewable energy, conserving energy, and improving stream quality through tough standards. We need to keep clean air but be careful about creating new mandates. Chester County has good programs through organizations like the Brandywine Valley Association. We can maximize the positive effects.
Your 4th most important issue is urban affairs; could you please explain?
I am majority chairman of the House Urban Affairs Committee. We need to revise the law on tax sales to help distressed municipalities, inner cities, and the historical older cities. They need to revitalize themselves and become the economic engines they once were. And smaller municipalities have similar problems.
What are the most defining differences between you and your opponent and are there issues on which you agree?
I don’t know her positions well enough to say. She has been active on autism and I helped her on her Home Alert program involving the police and others. She mentions health and disability; we do need to help families more effectively.
There is a lot of evidence that inequality has been growing in our society for the past 30 years; how important is that for you and can Harrisburg do anything about it?
Very important. We have to look at providing opportunities for kids and helping them meet the challenges that hold them back. We need to make education more effective. We should work with public school systems and individual schools in trouble. Community colleges and technical training are critical for students who are struggling.
Mental health is also critical: students shouldn’t have to meet all those challenges and then find they can’t get a job. People with drug and alcohol problems are not doing well; we don’t recognize the cost of that challenge. Many of the homeless have one of those problems.
Education should reduce inequalities—and the costs of the prison system. We should intervene more practically with non-violent offenders—those with drug and alcohol problems, mental issues, some veterans with PTSD—and not lock up the non-violent.
Are you out canvassing a lot and do you enjoy it?
I have many events with the public and stay busy finding out their views.
How important should a party label be to voters?
Voters decide that. They should vote for the best person, the one they trust. I’m fairly independent, not afraid to disagree with party leaders and legislators. I hope voters will seriously evaluate my record. There is less straight party voting than there used to be.
Are you getting much help from the state Republican party?
I haven’t asked them to help; I’ve told them I don’t need it. I am fortunate to be able to run my own campaigns.
Has the 158th district seat been occupied by men or women in recent memory, and how does that reflect the district?
I enjoy working with women legislators in Harrisburg. Elinor Z. Taylor was next door to me, Carole Rubley was near. The women there do an excellent job and have good program ideas. Voters should look at the candidates. The 156th district had two women in a row, but that isn’t a trend.
Do you have any comment on your opponent’s overall philosophy of government?
Are her chief goals (on her web site: education, environment, small business) compatible with each other, and do you share them?
I won’t help her analyze their compatibility. But those goals are all important. I hate prioritizing issues, because whatever the merits, some bills move faster than others. Some, like alternative energy portfolio standards, go quickly, because they reflect development and jobs. That was a priority for Gov. Rendell and had key supporters, and they presented it well. Other bills move slowly.
It’s not easy to rationalize competing interests, as in an intelligent redistribution of education funds. In places with larger per-pupil spending, we need to ask how the money is spent. We need intelligent and effective programs regarding class hours, tutoring, etc.; we need alternatives, not necessarily more funding. Philadelphia is heavy with higher-level administrators; money is not necessarily improvement. The charters represent innovation; it is good that they are open to all students. Cyber charters are good but shouldn’t receive the same funding as brick-and-mortar schools.
Increased pension expenses are a problem. The state has to meet its obligations to current teachers and retirees. But for new hires, we need to reduce future costs and increase their contributions. We need to manage long-term costs by voluntary offers and incentives. The current progression of costs is alarming; we have to work out the money effectively, like a business.
Gov. Corbett currently has a low popularity in the state. To what extent are you running with him and what he stands for?
I’m not running with him; I run on my own. You can agree or not with the Governor; he has probably been disappointed with some of my votes. But I cooperated on the Harrisburg municipal bankruptcy. There are strong personalities in the capital; I like to talk to all parties and treat all fairly—with some success.
The PA Supreme Court decision on Scranton regarding police and firefighters could aggravate the situation. It’s a devastating decision, the unions won; some thought the unions would never cooperate again, but we found a way, respecting all involved. Being reasonable, respect, thinking of the taxpayers’ needs—there’s a give and take. The fire and police forces are residents, and they recognize that the city shouldn’t become insolvent.
Are there issues where you differ with other Republicans today?
There is no single Republican philosophy. I make decisions on my own. The eastern and western parts of the state are very different. My own philosophy is to serve my constituents and be aware of what they think. I don’t agree with anyone all the time; I agree with some Democrats. Political life is a spectrum; it should not be oversimplified.
How will the presidential race affect your race?
The presidential race will increase turnout, and it’s good for more to participate. We’ll see how it impacts the State House races. At this, the lowest level, I can read my mail and offer access; people know me, whereas Congress is several levels above the daily mail.
Are there a couple of other questions we should have discussed?
I voted against the voter ID law, because its benefits did not outweigh the problems it caused. I’m working hard to help voters with ID issues. The PA Supreme Court tossing it back to judge Simpson will complicate things further, as he has to test whether the Department of State is meeting its goals. The new DOS ID issued by PennDOT, based on social security number with only one office visit plus mail follow-up if needed, will help. I’m worried about long lines, and about frustrations being taken out on the election boards. Such challenges are why I doubted the wisdom of the law.