Are we electing representatives or creating kingdoms?
They say the first election is always the hardest, and it looks like this political axiom may hold true for Kurt Masser and Lynda Schlegel Culver.
Both won hard-fought contests in 2010 - Masser in the general election and Culver in the primary. But now it looks like both could be members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for as long as they want. This assumes, of course, that they don't do something drastic that ticks off a majority of their constituents, which is not likely to happen. If you're smart enough to get re-elected to the state House, you're bound to make sure your legislative focus and your voting record won't be at variance with the values of the folks at home.
Masser and Culver's predecessors - Bob Belfanti and Merle Phillips, respectively - served in the House for three decades. Although Masser and Culver will likely never match that longevity in office, they are close to attaining that "career legislator" status, if that's what they want, because - already - no one seems to want to run against them.
This will be the second election in a row that Culver stands to win without opposition, unless, of course, a Democrat from the Sunbury area mounts a write-in campaign in the primary.
Masser will have an opponent in November. Chris Pfaff, who lost the Democratic primary for the office in 2012 and was twice defeated, as a Republican, by Belfanti in the 1990s, is a Democratic candidate and likely nominee this year. But no matter how hard Pfaff campaigns, he will always be an underdog conducting an uphill battle. It's hard to run against an incumbent with the advantages of name recognition, constituent service and, of course, the necessary resources to communicate your message.
Everyone in the 107th Legislative District, even Masser's most enthusiastic supporters, should thank Pfaff for becoming a candidate. No one deserves to get elected to office on a free ride. It's not good for the incumbent and it's not good for the citizenry. It's certainly not what representative government is all about.
But, of course, free rides are becoming the norm for the Pennsylvania Legislature. In the 2012 election cycle, 76 House candidates were elected without any opposition whatsoever in both the primary and general elections. This year, according to a check of candidate filings on the Pennsylvania Department of State website, that number could expand to 84. Again, there's still a possibility opposition candidates could be nominated in the primary via write-in votes.
It's no secret why, over the past 32 years, there have been relatively few competitive (much less contested) House races in Northumberland County's two districts: Incumbents have been considered virtually unbeatable, and no one wants to go down in history as a "sacrificial lamb" or a "good soldier."
In the days of strong political parties, candidates could always be found to carry out these hopeless quests if there was a reward in the effort - such as acquiring or keeping a county or state job. Today's party chairmen have no such ability to bestow such amenities.
With each House district having around 60,000 people, there should logically be more worthy citizens who aspire to the job. However, those who think about running may be dissuaded by the potential financial cost, the effect on their families, the potential harm to their career or professional life, concerns (though often unfounded) about the shoddy nature of politics and the embarrassment of losing.
Our dysfunctional political system has resulted in a shortage of democracy for what should be the most democratic institution in the state. With more than a third of House members getting elected without facing an electoral challenge, it's no wonder that Pennsylvanians suffer daily from the effects of legislative dysfunction.
Making House terms longer, implementing some form of campaign financing to even the playing field and enacting term limits are potential reforms that could succeed in giving Pennsylvanians more truly competitive elections.
But the principal solution starts with us. We all need to start looking at public service as something to be admired, and stop looking down on our politicians. Instead of anointing legislators as "unbeatable," we need to hold them more accountable. Accountability not only leads to better job performance, it empowers alternative voices.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)