Merle's tenure, service might never be equaled
Intellectually, I "get it" when people make the argument for term limits.
Power, when held too long, yields arrogance, self-promotion and short-sightedness. The cult of personality transcends healthy debate on public issues, and perpetuation in office, rather than social progress, becomes the primary goal.
But the strongest argument against term limits can be summarized in two words: Merle Phillips. His constituents in the 108th Legislative District liked him so much they elected him 16 times, mostly without significant opposition. It wasn't just that they admired Phillips as a person, they approved of the representation he provided.
Term limits would have deprived the good people of Sunbury, Milton and Herndon, and surrounding areas, of their right to have this highly respected, civic-minded and effective leader work for them in Harrisburg. It's hard to imagine anyone else who could have provided the same quality representation over a period that spanned three decades.
Phillips, who died Monday at age 85, was elected to the state House of Representatives 16 times, the first time in a special election in early 1980. He was elected again the following November to a full two-year term, and, over the next 28 years, was elected 14 more times.
Phillips is among a handful of legislators from North-umberland County whose tenures can be best spoken of as eras rather than years. These include two who served contemporaneously with him - Robert Belfanti, who represented the 107th Legislative District, and Edward W. Helfrick, Belfanti's predecessor in the 107th who went on to serve many years in the state Senate.
The other two members of the longevity club are John F. Stank, who represented the Shamokin-Mount Carmel area in the state House, and Adam T. Bower, long-time House member from the Sunbury area.
Bower served 28 years from 1939 to 1966 (followed by a stint as the hired chief clerk of the House). Helfrick was in office around 28 years, including the House from 1976 to 1980 and Senate from 1980 until his resignation in August 2003.
Stank and Belfanti each served 30 years in the House. Stank was there from 1933 to 1956 and 1959 to 1964, Belfanti from the end of 1980 through the end of 2010. Impressive accomplishments.
By virtue of his service of eight months after the 1980 special election and his 15 two-year terms, Phillips is the all-time Northumberland County record holder for most years (approximately 30¾) in the Legislature.
It is a record that will probably never be broken. In fact, in commenting on Phillips' passing, President Judge Robert B. Sacavage made the apt prediction that the way politics is now, we will likely not see many more leaders like Phillips.
There are just not that many people in the political world nowadays who are able to separate personalities from politics. Phillips was a loyal party man without ever being partisan, a tough battler who never got down in the gutter, and an extremely good listener who always took time to consider the "other side." He saw no reason why political opponents could not be valued personal friends.
It's sad that Phillips lost his last political campaign, the 2011 election for Northumberland County commissioner. But because he was so active all his life, it would have been unthinkable for him to pass up the opportunity for appointment to the board in November 2010; running for election in 2011, despite his health problems, was part and parcel of Phillips' lifelong determination never to walk away from a job that he considered unfinished.
The words "career politician" might come to mind for anyone who has served 30 years in a high-profile office, but the term doesn't apply to Phillips. The fact is, he operated a business much of his life and didn't even run for office until he was 47 years old. In 1975, he lost in the Republican primary for Northumberland County treasurer, and in 1979, he was a Republican nominee for county commissioner. He was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time at the age of 51.
At a chronological age when most people like to take it easy, Phillips functioned skillfully in the high-pressure, politically charged world of the Pennsylvania Legislature. Although very few senior citizens have the urge to hold public office at that level, Phillips' example should inspire older citizens to be as involved as possible in the community and in efforts to promote economic, educational and cultural progress.
The Shamokin-Mount Carmel area was never kind politically to Phillips. He underperformed badly here in his three countywide campaigns. Nevertheless, he was always generous in his support of projects that benefited eastern Northumberland County and in his friendships with countless coal region residents.
He was a much better friend to us than we ever were to him. But that's just the kind of guy Merle was.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)