The Top 10 Pa. political stories of the decade | Fletcher McClellan

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

In addition to chronicling Pennsylvania’s status as one of the nation’s most corrupt states, this list discusses political trends that may extend well into the 2020s. We start with the events that had the greatest impact then and now.

Corruption, Part I – Sex: The Jerry Sandusky revelations shocked the nation, leading to tougher child abuse laws in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The scandal tarnished the reputation of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, for whom Sandusky served as an assistant for 30 years.

Also stunning was the 2018 grand jury finding that Catholic priests, serving in the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton dioceses, sexually abused hundreds of children over the past 70 years. Only recently did the state legislature provide pathways for victim compensation, while the Catholic Church scrambled to respond.

Finally, the #MeToo movement highlighted countless instances of sexual assault and harassment in government, the workplace, show business, and everyday life. Entertainer and Philadelphia native Bill Cosby, accused by dozens of women, was convicted in 2018 of assaulting one victim, and is currently serving a 3-to-10 year sentence.

Pennsylvania helps elect Donald Trump: Breaking a 28-year streak of selecting Democratic presidential candidates, Pennsylvania voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. The switches of Pennsylvania and several Midwestern states made the difference in Trump’s Electoral College victory.

The worst of divided government: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s first budget in 2015 called for increases in income and sales taxes to cover structural budget deficits. Republicans rejected Wolf’s approach, and a nine-month government shutdown followed, during which time school districts, human services agencies, and nonprofits struggled to stay open. Overdue now: a nonpartisan response to mass shootings in Squirrel Hill and elsewhere.

The best of divided government: Contrasting with the rocky relationship of their first three years, Governor Wolf and the Republican legislature hammered out on-time budgets in 2018-19. Furthermore, they arrived at compromises on revenues, liquor reform, education, medical marijuana, election reform, a state-run Obamacare exchange, criminal justice reform, and domestic violence. Could a minimum wage increase be next?

Corruption, Part II – Greed and Ambition: The Jeopardy Answer: “Who are two state House speakers (Democrat Bill DeWeese and Republican John Perzel), two state treasurers (Democrat Rob McCord and Republican Barbara Hafer), an attorney general (see 7. below), a congressman (ex-U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah), mayors of Allentown, Reading, and Scranton, the Orie sisters of western Pennsylvania, Turnpike commissioners, numerous state legislators, and two Luzerne County judges?”

The Jeopardy Question – “Which Pennsylvania officials were convicted of crimes in the 2010s that included theft, bribery, “ghost” employees, mail fraud, perjury, money laundering, pay-to-play, and ‘kids for cash?'”

The Power of Shale: The extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale lode made Pennsylvania an energy powerhouse, helping the Commonwealth recover from the Great Recession. Shale proved politically powerful too, despite protests over the impacts of fracking and pipelines. Since he took office, Wolf has failed to convince the legislature to impose a severance tax on the industry.

Corruption, Part III – The Rise and Fall of Kathleen Kane: Four years after she rocketed to political stardom in 2012 with a smashing statewide victory, Kane, of Scranton, was found guilty of lying about leaking grand jury information. Under fire, she released a cache of pornographic emails, discovered when her office looked into whether politics influenced the Sandusky investigation. Two email recipients, members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, resigned. leading to Democratic control of the Court.

Gerrymandering and the state Supreme Court: After taking control of the governor’s mansion and the state legislature in 2010, Republicans crafted a Congressional district map that helped produce a 13-5 GOP edge in Pennsylvania’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, despite Democrats having a million-voter registration advantage.

In 2018, the state Supreme Court ruled the gerrymander violated the state constitution. In turn, the Court redrew district boundaries to create more contiguous and competitive districts that led to a 9-9 party split and greater female representation following the midterm elections.

Media shake-ups-and-downs: Pennsylvania was not immune to the waves of layoffs, shrinkages, and shutdowns in the newspaper industry. Chains known for stripping newsrooms bare bought dozens of local newspapers, including the Reading Eagle. Nonprofits, including the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, are attempting to fill the gaps in state and local news coverage.

Tom Corbett defeated for re-election: As Pennsylvania attorney general, Republican Tom Corbett made a name for himself as a corruption fighter. In 2014, Corbett became the first Pennsylvania governor to be defeated for re-election since the 1850s. The Great Recession, fallout from the Sandusky investigation, and a disputed $1 billion reduction in state education funding led to his unseating by Democrat Tom Wolf, a businessman and former Rendell administration official.

Honorable Mention: The defeat and death of five-term U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter; the Philadelphia soda tax; the election of reformer Larry Krasner as Philadelphia District Attorney.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter at @McCleleF.