Stilp says pink pig represents more than activism; it's leadership
The 25-foot long inflatable pink pig for which Gene Stilp is so well known represents more than just his feeling about politics.
It also reflects his eye for effective marketing, his intimate knowledge of the legislative process, and his desire to fix what's broken.
Heck, no engineer by trade but someone who has a knack for the mechanical, Gene Stilp even designed the pink pig.
He tells of his many travels with the inflatable, and notes that behind the legs of the George Washington statue on the steps of the federal courthouse on Wall Street are two electrical outlets that he needed during a protest there.
"Who else would know that?" he says with a laugh.
Oddity aside, Stilp is out to make the point that he has been around many corners in his efforts to project taxpayers.
The pink pig is just one of the approximately 60 inflatables he has helped create for corporations and organizations, sometimes for simple marketing, other times tied to his policy consulting business. And he estimates that probably half of the inflatables have been on the National Mall - "in front of Congress" - at some time.
As a Democratic candidate in the 11th district, Stilp is campaigning to be part of that Congress.
Will transitioning from activist to Congressman be difficult? Not at all, he says.
"A congressman better be an activist for the people of his district," Stilp said during a newsroom interview April 16 at The News-Item. "Being an activist is a major asset to being a congressman." He said he's motivated and ready to "walk in," and that he has the "knowledge of how things are done and how to get things done."
Changing the culture
Raised in Wilkes-Barre and a resident of Fishing Creek Valley north of Harrisburg for the past 20 years, Stilp says he knows ever "100 percent" of the newly redistricted 11th. A law school graduate, Stilp - beyond just the pink pig - has been involved in a number of unique projects through the years, including the dark-of-night placement of the Statue of Liberty replica in the Susquehanna River near Dauphin in 1986. He said the idea came to him as New York City prepared to celebrate the 100th of the actual statue, and figured most local people wouldn't be able to attend such an event.
"How do you build community?" he says in discussing the project. "It's about caring about where you live, and also, if you see the opportunity to do something nice for your community," you act, he said. "It's become a landmark, and I think it's become an inspiration for people. It makes you think about a set of values we like in this country."
His actions, too, have led him to key roles in some of the state Legislature's most noted public blackeyes. Stilp filed the only state lawsuits against the pay raise and argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, during which time his pink pig became a "symbol of greed in government." Stilp also filed the initial complaint in the Bonusgate scandal, and he won a major federal case in the 3rd Circuit against the State Ethics Commission, which opened the way for every Pennsylvanian to file an ethics complaint against elected officials without fear of retribution, Stilp says.
He remembers being told that he can't change politics, with predictions that the pay raise controversy would blow over in a few weeks.
"I said, 'oh, no; we're going to change the culture here,'" he said. "My activism has changed the state legislature."
He acknowledges that Congress isn't lacking oversight like the state is. "You're not going to see congressmen give their agents millions of dollars to conduct campaigns on taxpayer resources," he said, referencing Bonusgate.
But there is plenty of trouble in D.C. that he wants to address.
"What you are seeing is that 20,000 lobbyists in Washington, D.C., basically have a stranglehold on Congress," he said. "These lobbyists don't represent you and me."
Stilp said there is no easy solution, but one of the keys is to publicize "more and more" exactly who is giving money to whom, but, moreover, change the law to eliminate gifting of any kind from lobbyists to members of Congress.
"And this revolving door between lobbyists and Congress- you have members of Congress for years on key committees who then become lobbyists. They're actually writing legislation."
Stilp said the connections between candidates' campaign contributions and corporations and those who control corporations must be broken by legislation.
"The laws in congress, the loopholes in Congress, the tax credits in Congress are given to the very wealthy corporations," he said. "Congress is controlled by the lobbyists who are there for the benefit of their corporations; we don't have a say."
He said he'll search out like-minded representatives to change things. Is there enough new blood in Washington to do that?
"This is one of the challenges," he said.
Stilp rattles off a list of key issues that start with deficit reduction; job growth and preservation through support of small businesses; and helping keep Social Security and Medicaid solvent in part by reducing fraud.
In working toward these goals, Stilp said he'll approach his role as congressman as if he is a "business agent" for the district.
"You are in a competitive struggle with 434 other congressmen from across the country who want those funds for their district," he said.
He said a member of Congress has to be willing to team up with members from neighboring districts for the benefit of the region; the next step out in the concentric circle, he said, is the other members of Congress from the state.
And they must also work closely with their state government, Stilp said.
"No matter how many times I've sued (Gov.) Corbett, you have to work with his team hand-in-hand," he adds with a laugh.
Transportation is central to the economic plan, he said, because without adequate roads and bridges, the economy cannot improve. He noted a "ready-made ally" in the neighboring 17th district with Tim Holden, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, who is up for re-election this year.
Stilp said he hates to see education funding reduced, especially as it applies to the many institutions of higher learning that are either in or near the 11th district. Beyond their core functions, he said, they are also job incubators, the source of ideas, research and innovations.
"And also, these are the lifeblood of our communities. If you reduce the university, communities die, small jobs die, satellite companies and their collateral jobs die," he said.
An economic recovery means more jobs, and more jobs means more people paying into Social Security and Medicare to keep those funds solvent.
"It all fits together," he said.
Still talking economy, Stilp quickly delves into a conversation about how the district, in its new configuration, includes or is nearby to a collection of like operations: the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, the Letterkenney Army Depot near Chambersburg, the New Cumberland Army Depot and associated facilities in the Harrisburg area, Fort Indiantown Gap and the Tobyhanna Army Depot. He notes how all have survived examinations by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission.
"Therefore, I am looking for other functions across the United States that can move here, and we can consolidate" similar businesses, Stilp said. "If they've proven themselves, you want to attract other operations, similar categories to them."
He said another leg of restoring the economy is for the Bush-era tax cuts to be eliminated. The very wealthiest should "pay their fair share," he said. "Seems like a lot of these folks wouldn't mind paying more."
He acknowledged there's a risk in stunting business expansion and job growth by taxing businesses more, but said much of the abuse in tax avoidance comes from the wealthiest of corporations.
Prepared for the role
Stilp, noting that Vinsko agreed a few weeks ago to join him in signing a "clean campaign" pledge, was asked why he'd make a better choice for Democrats this spring.
"I'm know for my activism, my reform and also for taking care of people for years now; it's not just an overnight deal," he said. "I'm more prepared for this role, I believe."
Coming back to the Pink Pig, Stilp says it is but one example of the creative means he's applied to both solving problems and conveying a message.
"It shows activism, it shows a history of willingness to change, it shows an understanding of the process - it shows leadership," he said.
"The pink pig has been very effective, and when I go to D.C.," he added, "it looks like I'm going to need a much bigger pink pig."
Residence: Middle Paxton Townhip (near Dauphin).
Occupation: operates private policy consulting business; trained firefighter/EMT; legislative aide/legislative writer for 10 years at state House of Representatives; House of Representative's designee on the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board for six years. Designed Flight 93 flag used at Shanksville memorial.
Education: King's College; George Mason School of Law.
Family: wife, Judith