Russ Diamond, who failed three times for political office, is the unlikely hero of Pennsylvania's citizen revolt against career politicians who raised their own pay 16 to 54 percent last year.
Russ Diamond doesn't look like a revolutionary.
Dressed in blue jeans and a black shirt, Diamond smiles as he paces around the stage in the rear room of a bingo hall, where more than 100 people gathered on a blustery January evening to listen to him call for the overthrow of Pennsylvania’s government.
He doesn't use those exact words, but make no mistake about Diamond's message: the only way Pennsylvanians can regain control of their government is to toss out all of the incumbents in the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Part information session on how to run a campaign, part pep rally, Diamond whips the audience into a frenzy by pointing out how elected lawmakers who swore to uphold the state constitution ignored the document by giving themselves a middle-of-the-night pay raise last July 7.
"What are we going to do about it?" Diamond asks the crowd.
Shouts of "Hang 'em!" and "Shoot 'em!" ring out from residents still angry six months after the infamous pay raise was passed.
That's not the response Diamond was seeking. After another wide smile and a chuckle, Diamond answers his own question: "Vote them all out! Every last one!"
That brings thunderous applause from the crowd, made up of all ages. One couple brought their young daughter to the meeting. Another audience member traveled 20 miles from the Pottstown area to see Diamond in person.
For a man who's never held political office, Diamond is a force to be reckoned with in Pennsylvania politics.
The 42-year-old Lebanon County native founded Operation Clean Sweep, a non-partisan group dedicated to throwing out every incumbent on the 2006 ballot, including all 203 members of the state House, 25 members of the state Senate and Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed the pay raise into law.
The group's Web site, www.pacleansweep.com, has become a clearing house of information for the anti-incumbent movement. For the past six months, Diamond has criss-crossed the state to speak to anyone who will listen to his message.
Diamond, who owns a small company that manufactures and duplicates CDs and DVDs, doesn't draw a salary from the PaCleanSweep, which funds its crusade through donations and by selling bumper stickers for $10 and lawn signs for $20.
PaCleanSweep is credited with organizing the campaign that defeated state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro in last November's retention election, which was quickly followed by the near unanimous vote in the Legislature to repeal the pay raise.
The repeal vote wasn't enough for Diamond, who reminded the Berks County crowd that there's nothing to stop the Legislature from voting itself another pay raise.
"They can do it again," Diamond said. "It's time to take back our government."
Diamond's latest assault on the state's political establishment came Monday when PaCleanSweep unveiled 81 reform candidates recruited to challenge incumbent legislators in the May 16 primary. Some two dozen incumbent Legislators have already announced they will "retire" at the end of 2006 rather than face the voters.
Diamond's group has interviewed all the candidates and he believes voters will be impressed by the caliber of the challengers.
"I know when we started soliciting candidates to challenge incumbents that people had this fear that we would end up with a group of people right out of the Cantina from Star Wars," Diamond said, referring to a scene in the movie where all kinds of alien species gather in one spot.
"We have people who have served in local and county offices and school boards. They are serious candidates and will offer voters an alternative," Diamond said. "We are going to take back our government fair and square. Through the electoral process."
Diamond is no stranger to politics, but he's never had much success attracting voters. He ran unsuccessfully for the school board in his hometown of Annville. He also ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. Congress and the Pennsylvania House two years ago. He lost both races.
A registered Republican, Diamond said he won't use his new-found notoriety as an activist to launch another political run in 2006, although many people have urged him to seek statewide office.
"I can do more good doing what I'm doing right now," Diamond said. "Besides, I'm having too much fun. This is great. I can't believe all these people came out to hear me speak."
Diamond cautioned the audience that challenging entrenched incumbents won't be easy.
"They are going to pull out every trick in the book to get themselves re-elected," Diamond said. "Beware of legislators bearing gifts."
Incumbent legislators will be sending out campaign literature disguised as "legislative updates" and will show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and picnics, Diamond said. In many cases, the incumbents will present over-sized checks for various community projects, he said.
"Don't be fooled by politicians whose only goal is self-preservation," Diamond said.
Diamond said the legislators who did not vote for the pay raise or accept the 16 percent to 54 percent increases still have to answer to the voters for not standing up to their colleagues or party leaders.
"The rank-and-file outnumber the leadership 20-1," Diamond said. "They didn't stand up for what was right."
Another key part of Diamond's message is that Pennsylvania voters must share the blame for not making legislators accountable to the voters.
"I will be the first to say it's my fault," Diamond said. "It's my fault for not doing what I've done in the past six months for the last six years."
While the pay raise was the catalyst for voter anger, Diamond said there are many other areas where the state Legislature has failed Pennsylvanians, including property tax reform, education, health care and an anti-business climate in the state.
Although he is seen by many as the face of the reform movement, Diamond told the Berks County audience that each one of them has played an important role in frightening career politicians to push for reforms.
"It's not me who is responsible. It's you. And they (the politicians) know it," Diamond said. "We made history last year and we can do it again on May 16."
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas