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, but not to add material that was not in the interview. Neither has seen the interview with the other as of the moment of posting.
Why are you running for the state House of Representatives?
I’m an advocate; I work for people, families who have children and adults with disabilities, seniors and veterans to help them access the services they need. Harrisburg has lost the ideal that government should work for people.
This administration has given the store away on gas extraction: corporations have a larger voice than the people. Another example is the move to privatize public education: it’s the bottom line against the interests of children. In a struggle like that, the children won’t win and not winning means a poor education.
Do you find running for office to be quite a sacrifice of time and energy?
I believe in public service; if you’re in it for the right reasons, the ideal of serving people makes it worth the amazing amount of time and energy needed to run.
Public service is a passion, like my non-profit Speak Unlimited and co-creating the Premises Alert System. Through both I’ve improved lives, and even saved a few lives. The Premise Alert System allows anyone with a disability or complex medical need share information with first responders (police, fire, paramedical) before a crisis so that when there is a crisis everyone knows what needs to happen. This system protects both people who have needs and our First Responders. We gifted it to the state under Gov. Rendell, though we retained ownership of the form and system so it could not be changed. The program has been replicated in 2 other states and is being worked on in Canada and England. Over the years I’ve done a lot of good work for people as an advocate, as a state rep, I know I could do even more.
Do you enjoy politics?
I enjoy solving problems, helping people, making systems better. I also welcome a good fight when I am fighting for people.
You and your opponent both have some background as small business owners; is that a good background for office and does it give you anything in common?
I’m not sure of his business background. My husband and I have a farming business and I have the non-profit. Together they give me unique insights. In the non-profit I hear people’s concerns and I help people. Farming is a business that requires adapting—to weather, and changes in the market, planning, getting through bad years looking at long-term solutions and plans. That is the way the government should be thinking, with a long-term vision beyond the next election.
How would your training and professional experience influence you in office? Are more legislators with your training and experience needed in Harrisburg?
Yes, the legislature should have more farmers and more advocates, more people who understand the day-to-day struggles of owning a business and working to help people.
Your campaign motto is “Working for a socially and fiscally responsible state government”—why?
Fiscal responsibility is key to government but there are ways that this administration has made cuts that in the long term will cost the state millions more than the providing the services needed.
This administration has cut human services. What happens when parents grow too old to care for a child with disabilities? The state is looking to open more institutions at $250,000 per person per year, whereas housing people in the community costs $50,000 to $100,000 per person per year. Why would the state pay more for the solution that works less well and that people like less?
Inadequate services for people with mental health challenges increase emergency care and prison costs. Keeping people in prison costs about $50,000 a year; giving them preventative and supportive services in their daily lives makes them more productive to society and costs a few thousand dollars a year. Money spent on preventative programs can help keep people out of prisons: an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I just don’t understand the administration’s claim of fiscal responsibility. The Secretary of Public Welfare (an office that includes aging, mental health, etc.) won’t support home- and community-based support—that makes no sense to me for them to take money from less expensive, more effective and more desirable services and instead put extraordinary amounts of money in restrictive and less desirable programs
I actually have two other slogans: “Standing up for the people and values of Chester County” and “Rzucidlo, the “z” is silent. She is not.” They give people a fell feel for who I really am.
What do you think about the decisions that have been made in Harrisburg the last couple of years?
They are taking the state in the wrong direction. Governor Corbett does not share the values of Chester County; he does not respect the people of PA. It’s discouraging. I see my opponent voting with Corbett on almost every issue.
What are your 3 or 4 most important issues?
The economy, public education, environment, services for the vulnerable.
Why is the economy such an important issue for you?
PA has the highest corporate tax rates, which keep some companies from deciding to move here. To attract business we need good quality public education, a solid transportation infrastructure and to close some of the corporate loopholes while lowering the overall corporate tax rate.
Why is public education such an important issue for you?
Every child deserves a good quality public education. Our system does need reforms, but cutting money to poor schools is not the answer. Privatizing is not the answer either. PA has some of the country’s top public schools. Throwing money at the problem is not the answer. There are proven solutions and schools with few resources that are doing great things. We need honest reforms and true accountability at every level.
Why is environment among your leading issues?
I was stunned when House Bill 1950, the fracking bill passed, the bill that Governor Corbett signed into Act 13. The state gave away our natural gas for a 1% fee when the national average is 5%, it overrode local control, reversing a long time standard of Pennsylvania government and it reduced environmental oversight. There was a better option, The bipartisan Murt/DiGirolamo bill had business and environmentalist support but didn’t go anywhere in Harrisburg because it had a more reasonable severance fee that was higher than the Governor wanted.
Your 4th most important issue is services for the vulnerable; could you please explain?
Lack of proper services for the vulnerable and disabled hurts individuals and society as a whole. My son has a severe form of autism, but he is able to volunteer; he provides a service to society and may one day be able to work for pay, but until then he gives back as a volunteer. Where would we be without all the volunteers who get things done in our community?
My concern is what will happen when I can no longer care for him? It’s an unacceptable cost to society if someone like him is institutionalized–especially when it costs much less to provide him with services in the community. The state has a responsibility to help those who are unable to care for themselves.
We should be building ladders for people who are able but need assistance for a while to climb out of poverty, not cutting off services with at a set limit and no recognition of the process it takes to get there. Creating a sliding scale to reduce but not eliminate services as people gain training and skills until they are able to stand on their own is a better plan.
Some people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance payments can work and are making progress and one day would be able to be fully independent but under the current rules they can’t earn a single dollar over the federal limit without loosing everything. The government is forcing people to choose between full dependence on programs or full independence without any middle ground. If we are going to help people become independent we have to help in the journey. The overall cost would be less because some would make it, some would need just a little, and some would be unable to ever be independent. Joe Sestak was working on this and would have helped move it forward had he been elected.
The Corbett administration eliminated General Assistance, which supported people while they waited for their SSDI to be put in place, provided rehabilitation for individuals with drug and alcohol addictions, and helped domestic abuse victims to get on their feet; it was a time-limited 9 month program. The legislature could not find the money to pay financial help to those awaiting SSDI or rehab from drugs or escaping from domestic abuse, but they found the same amount to give themselves a COLA raise.
What are the most defining differences between you and your opponent? Are there issues on which you agree?
We used to agree on a number of things, but he has now become a party politician. He turned his back on the environment; he voted for HB 1950. The party bullied him into it. He voted against the voter ID but for a weak reason: he didn’t say it was wrong to do so fast, just that people can get fake IDs. He voted for Act 22, which gives the Secretary of Welfare power without legislative oversight—that’s unprecedented.
When legislators turn over their power to oversee policy changes people loose the power to have their voices heard. People are losing their voice to non-elected bureaucrats; it’s devastating, it goes against the founding principles of this country. Legislators are abdicating their role to work for the people so they don’t have to deal with people.
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?
It’s important; yes, Harrisburg can do something. The state needs to help people build their way out of poverty and rebuild the middle class. It’s a vicious circle: the state cuts school district funding; school districts raise taxes. Thousands of Pennsylvanian, mostly seniors, lose their homes to school taxes every year. Every election season, candidates talk about the problem, then do nothing about it. We need better bills, with public input. I favor reducing property tax, because one size doesn’t fit all. My opponent hasn’t done anything towards finding a long-term solution in the 15 years that he has been in office.
Are you out canvassing a lot and do you enjoy it?
Yes to both. The best part is meeting people, hearing their concerns, listening to their needs. I knock on 350-500 doors a week myself. I come back with answers and information. It goes more slowly where I have to drive from house to house in areas like Newlin, the Marlboroughs, London Britain. West Bradford. I can more easily walk in Kennett Square, Avondale, Caln, & East Bradford…. It’s a diverse district; it gives a good view of life today.
How important should a party label be to voters?
It shouldn’t be important. I think voters should vote for the candidate who shares their values and beliefs and whose stands on the issues reflect their own. Democrats shouldn’t vote for me just because I am a Democrat but because I hold the same beliefs they do. Republicans should not choose NOT to vote for me just because there is a “D” behind my name. They too should learn where I stand on the issues and then vote based on my stand on the issues they care about.
The Dem label fits me best but I don’t always agree with other Democrats. Other than voting and getting people to register to vote I was never involved in the party until I became a candidate. People should vote their values and personal issues.
Are you getting much help from the state Democratic party?
I have great committeepeople. The Kennett Democrats, East Bradford Dems and Caln Dems are helping me a lot. The state party organizers aren’t that interested because I don’t tend to follow their direction. But It’s not a concern of mine if I don’t please the state Democrats; my concern is working for the people and doing what is right for them.
There are times that I agree with the party and we move forward. There are times that I don’t and I press the point because I always feel that it is important to do what is right, not necessarily what the party wants.
Has the 158th district seat been occupied by men or women in recent memory, and how does that reflect the district?
Joe Pitts held the seat from 1972 to 1996 and Chris Ross from then till now. Ross ran against Pitts in primaries twice and lost, until Pitts went to Congress. Government would do better, make more progress, and be more representative with more diversity in the ranks. PA is 42nd in the number of women in its legislature; the PA House has only 33 women, or 16%.
Do you have any comment on the incumbent’s overall philosophy of government?
He has never shared his philosophy of government with me. I’m concerned, for example, about his payday loan bill, on which he worked for 10 years. It’s opposed by 57 organizations—faith, consumer, senior, veteran—and by many of his constituents. Under George Bush, the Department of Defense limited payday loan rates to active military to 36%, because it was a threat to national security to have military members owe rates of 369% and more.
The current state maximum annual rate is 24%. Payday loan companies stay out of Pennsylvania because of that. The PA Supreme Court decided that payday loans were not in line with our state banking laws, and the PA Attorney General goes after payday loan companies in the state. Maybe this bill reveals some of the incumbent’s philosophy of government.
Are his chief goals compatible with each other, has he implemented them, and do you share them?
What are they? I can only judge by how he voted: For payday loans and against the environment, public education, and protecting seniors in nursing homes….
Gov. Corbett currently has a low popularity rating in the state. To what extent are you running against him and what he stands for?
To the extent my opponent stands with the Governor and they are doing things together. The Governor couldn’t move his agenda without the legislature’s approval and Chris Ross pretty consistently votes with Governor Corbett.
Are there issues where you differ with other Democrats today?
We need a sustainable alternate energy program; so far, the state has produced only bubbles that burst. We need a long-range plan so that these alternative energy programs can thrive and become a self-sufficient industry.
How will the presidential race affect your race?
It will energize voters and I hope it means more Democrats will vote the whole ticket and not just for president. I hope it means that more Independents and Republicans get to know the candidates and vote their values.
Are there a couple of other questions we should have discussed?
The Republicans in Harrisburg are working to limit women’s access to health care. The Metcalfe bill HB 2405 would limit access to preventative health care and birth control. Women should make their own decisions. Government should not be limiting an individual’s ability to make personal decisions. Preventing women from getting preventative care now, raises costs later.
I believe we can find common ground to reduce the need for abortions in America while protecting a woman’s right to have one. The decision to have an abortion should be up to a woman, her family and her doctor. We can reduce the number of abortions by, having access to birth control to prevent unintended pregnancies, increasing support for adoption and supporting pregnant women and new families.