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Risk & Sacrifice separate grass roots activists from insulated party professionals

In 2009, like many other citizens shocked at the sudden, dramatic changes and corruption re-shaping America, I greatly increased my political activity.

Part of a grass-roots wave of citizen activists that year, I ran in a four-way US Congressional primary.  It’s a long story, and in short I ended up liking one of my opponents so much I hoped he would win.  Along the way, several people closely affiliated with the Republican Party tried to dissuade me from running, assuring me that a certain sitting state senator would beat the incumbent Democrat, congressman Tim Holden.

Our campaign still netted about 25% of the vote in a four-way race, which is solid performance, especially considering that one of the candidates had run before, one was a sitting state senator, one was a well-known political activist, and we had gotten a late start and spent little money.

In the general election, Holden crushed the Republican state senator who won that primary race by 400 votes.

Fast forward to January 2012, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejects a new, heavily gerrymandered Republican redistricting plan.  At the heart of the court’s decision was the “egregious” and grossly unnatural shape of the 15th state senate district, where I happened to then reside, and still do now, too.

The PA Supreme Court called the new district “the iron cross,” and indeed it looked like a cross shape and was iron clad against upstart citizens asserting themselves in political races reserved for establishment members only.

(My current congressional district is the same, with only about ten blocks of Harrisburg City included in what is otherwise a large, rural district reaching the Maryland state line. Guess who lives in that ten-block area. Yes. Me. )

Given my previous public interest in running for the 15th senate seat, it was obvious that excluding our family’s home from that district was purposeful: It was an attempt by political bosses to artificially silence and thwart an otherwise good candidate who does not see his job as serving political bosses.

The court’s ruling allowed a handful of us to wage a tremendous grass roots 11th hour campaign for that senate seat, getting our start two days into the three-week ballot petition process.

Although we did not win, we did give the political bosses a hell of a challenge by winning a huge number of votes with only pennies spent.

A year later, York businessman Scott Wagner beat those same political bosses for his state senate seat, in a historic write-in campaign against a million dollars of party money. The race, and its remarkable result, drew national attention.  Clearly the voters responded to Wagner’s grass roots campaign in the face of a party juggernaut.

This evening I spent some time speaking with an NRA staffer.  We met at the Great American Outdoor Show, which is the former Eastern Outdoors Show and now NRA-run at the PA Farm Show complex, and he gave me an opportunity to vent a bit and explain my frustration with the NRA.

To wit: An increasing number of grass roots activists now perceive the NRA as merely an arm of the Republican Party establishment political bosses.  The same bosses who oppose conservative/ independent candidates like me and Wagner.

See, back in 2012, I was the only NRA member in that three-way primary race (to be fair, one candidate had been an NRA member for several months, which could never, ever be construed as a political move, even though he was the candidate selected by the same political bosses who created a safe district for him to run in), but the NRA refused to get involved.

If there was any endorsement that was deserved in that race, it would have been the NRA endorsing their one and only member, and a decades-long member at that – Me. (Firearm Owners Against Crime did endorse the one pro-Second Amendment candidate, thank you very much, Kim Stolfer)

And then tonight it dawned on me on the way home from the Farm Show complex…two basic but defining experiences separate grass roots activists and candidates from the party establishment: Risk taking and making sacrifices.

By definition, grass roots candidates take many risks and make many sacrifices, both of which are seen as signs of weakness by the establishment.

Self-starters motivated by principle and passion for good government, the grass roots candidates and activists have to reach into their own pockets to get any traction, and they often risk their jobs and businesses in challenging the establishment power structure.  To get invitations to events, they have to reach out and ask, knock on doors, make phone calls.  They have to cobble together campaigns made of volunteers and pennies, and they usually are grossly under-funded now matter how successful they are.

On the other hand, party establishment candidates have the ready-made party machine in their sails from the get-go.  Money, experienced volunteers, paid staffers, refined walking lists, the establishment can muster a tremendous force in a relatively short time.  Establishment candidates also enjoy artificial party endorsements (formal or informal) that give them access to huge pots of party campaign funds or a leg-up in other ways.

Establishment groups like NRA view grass roots candidates the same way as the party establishment views them- trouble makers.

In short, few if any establishment candidates put in their own money to drive their campaigns, take risks, or make sacrifices in their pursuit of elected office. Everything is done for them by other people.

So long as party establishment staff and officials and groups like NRA maintain this artificial lifestyle and view, this alternate reality, this disconnect between the grass roots voters and the party that needs their votes will continue and deepen.

So long as the voters see grass roots activists and candidates struggling against an unfair arrangement that is created solely for the preservation of political power and profit, they will continue to migrate away from the party and support people they can relate to the most.

An elder in my family once told me that taking risks and making sacrifices build character and lead to success, and although a 26-year career full of both risks and sacrifices has often left me wondering at the truth of that claim, I increasingly see it bearing out in electoral politics.

The voters are not dumb; they can see the pure American earnestness in their fellow citizen fighting City Hall.  They respect risk-taking and sacrifices made in the pursuit of saving America.  That is a strong character which no establishment candidate can or ever will have.

Those political parties and groups that ignore that strong American character do so at their own risk, because they will lose the supporters they need to be successful.