Maverick independent could tip Pennsylvania governor's race
The founder of Pennsylvania's anti-incumbency movement wants to spread his message of reform to the rest of the United States.
The blue jeans and black T-shirt are gone. Russ Diamond is wearing a suit and tie these days.
A thorn in the side of the political establishment for nearly a year, Diamond wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be Pennsylvania's next governor.
The maverick who turned Pennsylvania politics on its head using a Web site he started for $180.47 has decided the best way to fix Harrisburg is from the inside. And you can't get more inside than the governor's mansion.
The challenge ahead is daunting. The stakes are bigger now, but so is the prize.
If by some miracle Diamond becomes the Keystone State's next governor, Karl Rove may have to take a page out of Diamond's political playbook.
A year ago, Diamond lived in relative obscurity in a tiny town in Lebanon County. He ran a small business that manufactures CDs and DVDs. His political experience consisted of two failed attempts for office on the Libertarian Party ticket.
Today, he is arguably the best known political name in Pennsylvania this side of Ed Rendell or Lynn Swann. Yes that was Russ Diamond profiled in The New York Times two weeks ago.
Thanks largely to Diamond's efforts, the eyes of the nation are focused on Pennsylvania, where a fledgling anti-incumbency movement has been gathering steam for 10 months. Whether it gives birth to a full-scale revolution will be determined May 16 when all 203 members of the state House and 25 of the 50 state senators face the voters.
If Diamond gets his way, incumbents will be swept out of office in record numbers that day.
And most of the challengers on the ballot have Diamond to thank for getting them this far. He has screened more than 100 candidates who are running under the PaCleanSweep banner. Diamond has criss-crossed the state to attend candidate nights and pep rallies for candidates, many of whom are running for the first time.
If he can pull off the clean sweep on May 16, Pennsylvania would be just the beginning. Nearly everyone in Pennsylvania has heard of PaCleanSweep. How about a USACleanSweep?
Diamond wants to spread his message of reform and accountability to the entire nation. He's already talked to activists in a dozen other states who want to start grassroots movements to overthrow the established political order.
"If it works here in Pennsylvania, we may help turn this nation around," Diamond told a group gathered in Berks County to support PaCleanSweep candidates Irv Livingood and Bill Reed. "With a little luck and prayer, we can change the world."
Get Diamond started about the state of Pennsylvania government and it's hard to get him to stop. He knows how to work a crowd. He speaks without notes, but knows his facts and can quote the state Constitution verbatim.
He sees his run for governor as a natural extension of the work he began with PaCleanSweep.
"I want to give the people of Pennsylvania a choice," Diamond said. "Someone other than the two people the establishment has picked to run. I'm the anti-establishment candidate for governor."
Trim and tanned with styled hair that never moves, the 42-year-old Diamond is passionate about sticking it to the political order, but he never comes across as angry or shrill. He's serious about reforming government, but he uses a wide smile and self-deprecating humor to charm his audience.
Diamond doesn't have the money, the education or the connections of Pennsylvania's political elite, but he comes across as a natural born leader and someone you trust will do the right thing.
He has boundless energy even though he drives hundreds of miles a day to attend political rallies for PaCleanSweep candidates. After discussing his platform for nearly three hours at a fire company social hall, he invites a straggler to join him for coffee. It's 10 p.m. and Diamond wants to keep going.
People who have read about him want to meet Diamond in person. In two recent stops in Berks County, Diamond attracted 150 people to a bingo hall and a fire company. He doesn't have anything to offer people other than a vision of ethical and responsive government.
Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, frustrated by the lack of accomplishments in Harrisburg, forget their political differences and buy into Diamond's "can-do" attitude.
This isn't a man who runs a Fortune 500 company or somebody who has an extensive record of public service. But people believe Diamond when he says the only reason he wants to go to Harrisburg is to work for the people — not to line his own pocket.
"It's us versus them. The people who pay the taxes versus the people who suck up the taxes," Diamond told the enthusiastic crowd in Berks. "For the people who walk up to the government with their hand out, I say, 'put your hand back in your pocket.'"
That kind of populist rhetoric strikes a chord with retirees struggling on a fixed income or working people who are paying $3.00 for a gallon of gas to get to their jobs.
The stars began aligning for Diamond on July 7, 2005. At 2 a.m., the state Legislature voted to give itself, the governor and the state's judges pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. The lawmakers then adjourned for their annual two-month vacation.
Those two months allowed Diamond to mobilize a citizens' revolt. He fired at will all summer at the hapless legislators who were told by their party leaders that voters have short memories and the pay raise vote would be forgotten in a matter of weeks.
Voters didn't forget. On Nov. 8, a sitting state Supreme Court justice was voted out of office and a second justice narrowly won her retention vote. A week later, a scared legislature repealed the pay raise. That wasn't enough for Diamond, who launched a "Hall of Shame" section on the PaCleanSweep Web site to list the lawmakers who took the pay raise early and refused to give the money back after the repeal.
That public humiliation led to 30 legislators deciding not to seek re-election this year. It also encouraged more than 100 challengers to run against incumbents under the PaCleanSweep banner.
PACleanSweep has experienced some internal struggles in recent weeks, with Diamond and the rest of the group's board wrestling for control. Diamond, who resigned Thursday as the group's chairman, said his No. 1 priority until May 16 is to get as many PACleanSweep candidates elected as possible.
After May 16, his personal mission begins. Diamond needs to collect a minimum of 67,070 signatures just to get his name on the Nov. 7 ballot. He has until Aug. 1 to turn in his nominating petitions. His goal is to gather at least 100,000 signatures so he could survive a legal challenge that would invariably come from the Rendell or Swann camps.
Finding 100,000 people to sign a petition won't be easy, especially when you don't have the money or party apparatus behind you that the mainstream candidates enjoy.
If anyone can do it, it's Diamond.
The centerpiece of his campaign for governor is an "employment contract" with the people of Pennsylvania, Diamond said. In it, he will describe exactly what he will do for the voters.
He vows not to turn into a career politician once he gets to Harrisburg. Diamond promises to serve one term as governor and walk away from the Capitol.
"We can fix a lot in four years. I'm not worried about doing things to get myself re-elected. I'm going to go up there and work for the people of Pennsylvania."
While he will unveil his full platform after the primary election, some of his plans are listed on his Web site, www.russdiamond.org
Diamond said his priorities as governor would be to call for a constitutional convention to make it harder for politicians to get away with middle-of-the-night votes, repeal Act 71 (which brought casino gambling to Pennsylvania), reduce property taxes and make Pennsylvania more business friendly by tax breaks for small businesses and eliminating government regulations.
Diamond said he would allow Pennsylvania voters to decide if they want slot parlors in the state through a referendum vote.
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