Capitol feels bite of Pa. gadflies (Philadelphia Inquirer: 7/29/08)

By Christopher Wink | July 29, 2008 | Philadelphia Inquirer

HARRISBURG – They call themselves, simply, “the Coalition.”

They are an informal group of about a half-dozen citizen activists – most of them middle-aged men from Central Pennsylvania – who spend their time waging a grassroots war for governmental change in the Capitol.

Each member of the group’s cast of characters has his own political persuasion and priorities – not to mention colorful turns of phrase and memorable props to enliven the good-government message. But all are motivated by the same philosophy: State government needs fixing and elected officials aren’t doing the job.

“There is a cancer on the Capitol,” said Gene Stilp, founder of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United and one of the more visible Coalition members. “The question is if it’s incurable.”

Love them or hate them – and many hate them – this small group of activists has had a big impact on Harrisburg’s political landscape. Since 2005, their work has helped push out a Supreme Court justice and almost a quarter of the legislature.

Stilp is credited with prompting the 17-month probe into legislative bonuses that just this month led to a raft of political corruption charges against a dozen Harrisburg insiders.

But who are these activists? And why do they spend so much of their time – usually without pay – to do what they do?

Stilp, 58, is one of the higher-profile members of the Coalition, having run for lieutenant governor in 2005 promising to eradicate the position if elected. The former legislative aide is known for constructing oversize symbols that dramatize his causes. Memorably, there was the 25-foot pink pig he designed to illustrate what he considered the legislature’s greediness for voting itself generous pay raises in 2005 without public debate.

A low-key approach

Where Stilp is about grand gestures, Tim Potts is more reserved. He says he’s the only one with “experience in the belly of the beast,” having served stints in the executive branch and as a press secretary to the House’s top Democrat.

Potts, 59, helped launch a public-interest group called Democracy Rising PA in 2004, a response to the late-night vote to approve slots gambling. On his right ring finger is a reminder of why he does what he does – the Army Air Force ring of an uncle, a pilot killed in World War II.

“My mother once told me, ‘You’re doing what he died for,’ ” Potts said.

Eric Epstein, another Coalition member, put it this way: “We want people to be disturbed. . . . But we want them to know democracy is resilient.”

Epstein is perhaps the most irreverent of the group. He might hug you. Or give you a fist pound. Or tell an off-color joke. That facade in many ways belies his involvement as a safe-energy advocate and coauthor of the 1997 Dictionary of the Holocaust.

Still, Epstein takes pride in frustrating politicians.

Last July, after Epstein accused Rendell of acting as though he had “a mandate to pillage,” Rendell told The Inquirer that Epstein “is about as mentally stable as that guy who ate all those people.”

‘Ideology aside’

Chris Lilik is the Coalition’s political balance.

At 28, the baby-faced law school graduate is the youngest of the group and the president of Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania.

Unlike the others, he is open about his political affiliation, although that hasn’t stopped him from taking aim at his own.

“We set our everyday ideology aside and find commonsense solutions that we agree on,” said Russ Diamond, another member, former independent gubernatorial candidate, and founder of PA CleanSweep, which fielded more than 100 legislative candidates in 2006.

The Coalition holds joint news conferences lambasting legislators its members consider enemies of their movement. They agree on some issues, like fielding a state constitutional convention, changing the way legislative districts are mapped, and eliminating all government bonuses.

The legislature has taken notice because of the Coalition’s creativity in attracting media attention and its ability to recruit and fund potential challengers.

Its members make themselves available to reporters and are well-known for their quotability, amplifying the influence of their relatively small organizations.

Still, Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said critics could take issue with whether the activists truly spoke for the public.

“Government officials have formal power, so technically they are accountable to us, the people,” he said. “So who are the reformers accountable to?”

Added Rendell’s spokesman, Chuck Ardo: “They often allow their stunts to overshadow the substance.”

Big goals, small scale

All their operations are small-time. Stilp and Epstein are one-man shows. Lilik lays claim to more than 1,000 household donors but is the only full-time staff member. Democracy Rising PA has a board of directors, but Potts runs the group from his basement and has no other staff beyond occasional part-time administrative assistance. PA CleanSweep boasts 5,000 subscribers to its e-mail newsletter, but Diamond said he fronts the movement.

“You have to accept the fact that your life is going to be disrupted,” said Epstein. “Some people play golf, they crochet, they make scrapbooks. We try to restore the credibility of government.”

Epstein doesn’t support himself with activism, but through investments, writing, lecturing and consulting.

“I do three things,” Epstein said. “Work, sleep and ferment revolution.”

Likewise, Stilp, who does consulting, says he keeps his professional work separate from his advocacy work.

Lilik is a paid staffer of Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania. Potts receives varying monthly stipends from Democracy Rising, but mostly depends on his wife.

Diamond owns a CD- and DVD-duplication business that provides income – and free time.

“I just see myself as a kind of a regular guy who wants a better Pennsylvania,” Diamond said. “No kids, no wife, no mortgage. That frees me up to do a lot of things.”

And the activists have been busy since the bonus scandal broke.

Yesterday, about a dozen women in evening gowns, tiaras and sashes emblazoned with messages urging change walked the tiled floor of the Capitol rotunda. They were part of a mock beauty pageant called Miss Legislative Reform 2008, organized by Stilp.

The faux pageant was inspired by the bonus investigation, which alleged that a top aide gave a largely no-work job to a local beauty queen with whom he had a sexual relationship.

“It’s gotten attention for its craziness, and that’s what I operate in. If it’s necessary to jump out of a plane in a parachute and land in the fountain out back, why not?” Stilp said. “You have to be multitalented. You have to be dedicated. You have to get angry . . . because you’re trying to change things for the better.”

See it here on Philly.com. The coverage was part of a post-graduate internship with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association (PLCA).