ePluribus Media Interview: Chuck Pennacchio, Pennsylvania Senate Candidate
by Aaron Barlow with contributions by Todd Johnston for ePluribus Media
originally posted to DailyKos on Wed May 18th, 2005 at 08:06:21 EST

During the next 18 months, until the 2006 congressional elections, ePluribus Media intends to conduct interviews with candidates for the House and the Senate across the country. These interviews will allow outsiders as well as frontrunners to deliver their views to an "Internet" news audience. We hope this process will encourage candidates to address issues important to "grassroots" organizations, not simply to those on the national media's front pages.

Our initial interview in this series is with Dr. Chuck Pennacchio, Democratic candidate for the Senate seat from Pennsylvania now occupied by Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. Dr. Pennacchio will face Bob Casey, Jr. in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senatorial primary to be held next year. The interview was conducted by email in early May, 2005.

Dr. Pennacchio is the History Program Director at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He also serves as a board member at The Tabor Children's House Child Care Center and is a member of the Plumsteadville Grange, an organization that promotes rural living and agriculture. Dr. Pennacchio earned his Ph.D. in the field of diplomatic history from the University of Colorado in Boulder. He was named Professor of the Year in 2003 at the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where he taught for six years.

Link to Pennacchio 2006 for US Senate

Pennacchio speaking during the recent
Princeton University "Frist Filibuster"

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ePMedia: Thank you, Chuck Pennacchio, for taking the time to answer questions from ePluribus Media. As a candidate in the primary in Pennsylvania to become the Democratic challenger to Sen. Santorum, your opinions interest many more Americans than simply those in Pennsylvania. Should you win, your actions will impact us all.

Pennacchio: I couldn't agree more.

ePMedia: ePluribus Media has chosen to ask you to be the subject of its first political interview in part because your view of politics dovetails with our view of journalism. That is, we both want to accent the grassroots at the expense of centralized power structures, you in politics, we in journalism. You say, speaking of the political system, that "People feel like they've got no stake in the outcome if the process is owned by somebody else." The same, we feel, is true of journalism, and so we are developing our own process and status as "citizen journalists." That being the case, we would like to begin with a few questions regarding your views on grassroots movements.

The charge has been made that all of the potential challengers to Bob Casey, Jr. in the Democratic primary were convinced to stand aside by either Governor Rendell or the state Democratic party so that Casey, who leads Senator Santorum in the polls, can have a clear shot at victory. This top-down process seems to stem from a national calculation that leaves local voters out of the loop -- in terms of the primary, at least. It also seems to sacrifice issues (Casey, like Santorum, is anti-choice, for example) in favor of victory. Clearly, you have a different vision of what the party should be and how it should operate. Could you describe for us how you think the party should operate, telling us, also, how you see your relation to the existing party and its structures?

Pennacchio: First of all, my understanding (confirmed by one participant and other close observers) of the process by which Robert Casey, Jr. gained the Establishment's backing and, in turn, former Treasurer Barbara Hafer and former Congressman Joe Hoeffel were "convinced" to step aside, involved four Democratic Party leaders: Governor Ed Rendell (D, -PA), Party fund raiser extraordinaire Peter Buttenwieser (D, -PA-based), Sen. Charles Schumer (D, -NY), and Sen. Harry Reid (D, -NV). They determined that the best chance to beat Sen. Rick Santorum mandated clearing the field of all but one Establishment Democrat. Incidentally, as one participant explained to me in advance, Robert Casey, Jr. and Barbara Hafer were the two leading prospects heading into the process, with Casey having the inside track.

The "underlying calculation," as you describe it, was both national and state-level. Consider, for a moment, the desperate nature of a Pennsylvania State Democratic Party that has lost the last 14 straight full-term U.S. Senate elections, not to mention the thinking of national Democrats frustrated with losing two consecutive presidential elections. Democrat Joe Clark (1963-1969), by the way, claims the dubious distinction of being the last full-term Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania. Only the Kansas Democratic Party has a longer drought than Pennsylvania's.

Sacrificing issues for "assumed" victory is more like it. The assumption of running a conservative Democrat failed in 2000 (with former Congressman Ron Klink), the last time Santorum faced Pennsylvania voters. Progressives across the state not only sat on their hands and wallets in the 2000 U.S. Senate race; several hundred thousand progressives also sat out the Senate vote.

ePMedia: The claim could be made that it is more important for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate than to build local grassroots organizations. How would you respond to this?

Pennacchio: Why set one objective against the other? That is backwards thinking. The idea of regaining Democratic control is intrinsically linked to our success in rebuilding our grassroots connections to the Party's party's base -- many of whom have walked away altogether or have been alienated to the point of passive participation (i.e., voting only).

ePMedia: Given the current political structure of the state, your campaign is a long- shot. What changes would you recommend that could improve the primary structure and the party itself from a grassroots viewpoint?

Pennacchio: I strongly disagree with the premise of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party being a strong political structure. In point of fact, the Democratic Party has not been this weak since the 1920s -- at the national or state levels. Consider this little tid-bit: 40 out of 67 Democratic County Chairs in Pennsylvania are 72 years of age or older.

The primary structure should not be "bossed," as this one obviously has been. Late nineteenth 19th century-style, antidemocratic, political deal-making is not the answer to our state party's failure to win a full-term U.S. Senate seat in 43 years. Rather, we must recruit new and younger blood at all levels of decision-making and office-holding and promote democratic reforms that inspire broader participation. We need to train our recruits -- and willing older Party party members -- in the basics of grassroots organizing, messaging, fund raising, networking, and canvassing. Having been an integral part of three winning U.S. Senate campaigns (2 two general -- Tom Harkin and Tim Wirth, and 1 one primary -- S.B. Woo), I understand what "long-shot" candidacies are and are not. I would say my candidacy is odds-against, but hardly long-shot. We will likely be out-spent, but not out-organized, not out-messaged, not out-resourced, not out-managed, and not out-disciplined. My campaign -- our campaign -- is built to win elections and built to lead a movement of progressive-minded Democrats and independents to majority control of state and federal houses, majority control of state and federal judicial seats, and built to take back executive mansions in every state capital and Washington, D.C.

ePMedia: You say your campaign "prides itself on two-way communication between the campaign and the grassroots." Lots of people make such claims. How do you back yours up?

Pennacchio: By actually engaging in such exchanges both on-line and off-line. Before bringing Tim Tagaris on in to be our Internet organizer and communications director, I began visiting Democracy for America, municipal Democratic Party groups, and other non-profit meet-ups throughout Pennsylvania. To date, I have met with 34 grassroots meet-ups. In addition, I have personally hosted a half-dozen Pennacchio for Pennsylvania organizing meetings in Northwest Pennsylvania, Southwest Pennsylvania, and Southeast Pennsylvania.

In terms of on-line communication, Tim is constantly exchanging ideas with supporters, observers, and contributors. He blogs almost daily, while I blog an average of once a week-- -- on our webWeb page, Daily Kos, MyDD, and other web Web sites. And to bring home our campaign's grassroots/Netroots synthesis of activity, I spoke for one an hour last week at the Princeton University "Frist Filibuster." The primary content of my message was to read blog entries from supporters who reject the antidemocratic efforts of right-wing Republicans to shut down the Senate's minority rights-preserving filibuster.

ePMedia: What do you see as the impact of the Web on grassroots politics? Do you envision changes in politics resulting from the Internet that are not yet apparent?

Pennacchio: The current impact of the Web, and the longer-term impact of the Web on grassroots politics has only recently been tapped. But what I can say so far is that the impact has been quite significant for media relations, events organizing, and fund raising. The on-line community has opened up press opportunities by contacting media outlets otherwise marginally interested in our campaign; we organized our Western Pennsylvania swing, from April 1-3, almost exclusively through the Internet; and, to date, we have raised the critical dollars on-line critical to keep our effort moving fast and furious.

ePMedia: Each new successful grassroots process eventually seems to be co-opted by better-funded, more centralized, and higher-profile organizations. For example, Arianna Huffington is inaugurating what she calls a "blog" of 250 invited diarists, taking an "open" concept and turning it to one that is "select." As a politician, if you succeed and go to Washington, even your own organization will face the danger of direction from Washington and not from the grassroots. What would you do to keep grassroots involvement?

Pennacchio: For 32 years I have lived and breathed good-government, grassroots organizing. It is my central focus; it is who I am. Having also worked in Congress for a U.S. senator and U.S. representative, there is nothing about the institution of Congress or culture of Washington that can turn me away from the grassroots. In fact, the future of our progressive movement depends on our continued successes at the grassroots level. For all of these reasons, my allegiance will always be with the citizens (who will) put me in the Senate.

ePMedia: Could you expand a bit on your turning of Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" into "the campaign is the message"? If that is the case, and you win, the campaign will be over. What will becomes of the message then?

Pennacchio: The campaign is certainly part of our overall message right now. But the implicit nature of your question is correct; it is, by necessity, a transitory part of my message...our message. Still, it is my highest hope that the campaign we are designing and delivering right now will be a model for future progressives to copy and build on.

So what is our message? The Choice is Clear. Thematically, I stand for inclusion, democracy, equality, reform, women's pro-choice, and common sense foreign policy, whereas my opponents fall short of these principles to varying degrees (depending on whether we talk about Casey Jr. or Rick Santorum). On specific issues, I am the clear progressive choice on a woman's right to choose, separation of church and state, stem-cell research, universal health care, affordable education, economic opportunity, campaign-finance reform, balanced budgets, stepped-up homeland security, phased-out withdrawal from Iraq, and a multi-layered approach to global threats against the United States and other vulnerable nations.

ePMedia: In the ePluribus Media exploration of Talon News, the "service" Jeff Gannon worked for when he "covered" the White House, we found an informal structure of "information" dissemination among the Republican faithful. It starts in Washington, is picked up by "independent" media outlets like Talon News, then moves to local Republican and right-wing Web sites and newsletters. When enough of these have picked up the story, a drum-beat is created that piques the interest of the mainstream media. You don't have access to a similar structure and, as a believer in grassroots action (as opposed to the "Astroturf" process described above), don't want to develop one. How, then, do you propose to structure effective media outreach that can counter the proven efficiency of the Republican system?

Pennacchio: By its very nature, our campaign operates in complete opposition to the Republican top-down communication structure. While we are certainly in the process of creating a "structure," it is more of an organic operation that invites participation and welcomes inclusion in the process. We want to create community by giving people a "window" into the campaign." It is through that community, on the ground, in Pennsylvania, that press coverage will develop. We want to invite bloggers to participate and report on the campaign, with our upcoming statewide kick-off as a good example. As more people witness the way we invite "new media" into the process, the more people reach out to the campaign hoping and wanting to be included -- and everyone is welcome. By using the Internet as one of the many tools to create community, the buzz grows in volume, and the press takes notice. But that will unfold from the ground up, as opposed to the top-down network you described in the question.

ePMedia: Let's move into another area: You are running for the Senate, and one of the great questions facing that body today concerns checks and balances -- from the filibuster to the independence of the judiciary. John Stuart Mill, in "On Liberty," describes a system of checks and balances as a necessary means of preventing a "tyranny of the majority." Today, almost all of what we hear is that checks and balances circumvent true democracy. Do you think there is a way to protect both minorities and democracy without heading into the train-wreck facing our Senate today over the filibuster, "advice and consent," and judiciary nominations?

Pennacchio: As a future senator, current Senate candidate, and political historian, I am convinced that protecting minority views and preserving democratic values is not only possible and perfectly compatible, but also critical to the future and health of our republic. Our system is not a true democracy, but rather a limited democracy -- a federal system that divides, balances, and checks power. So how do I promote minority and democratic rights? I support a strengthened filibuster -- that is, returning to the pre-1993 cloture vote requirement of 67 votes in order to end a filibuster. The present requirement of 60 votes to terminate a filibuster is not protection enough for minority rights in the one institution (- the U.S. Senate) designed to thwart the "tyranny of the majority."

ePMedia: In an atmosphere of political polarization, what means do you see for reducing the anger and alienation felt today by those out of power, emotions that have become increasingly evident within our political system over the past decades?

Pennacchio: Grassroots outreach, grassroots communication, grassroots empowerment, grassroots action, grassroots democracy -- in combination with a clear and distinct progressive agenda. Unless and until the Democratic Party rediscovers and unabashedly advances, without apology, its progressive values, the polarization methods of the Republican right will continue to hold sway. Specifically, cultural issues will continue trumping economic, political, and legal concerns because of the passion and conviction brought to bear by cultural-religious warriors of the far right.

ePMedia: Finally, please allow us to ask a few questions on specific issues: First, could you tell us -- briefly and without equivocation -- what your stand is on same-sex marriage?

Pennacchio: I support same-gender civil unions with full equality of both state and federal benefits extended to tradition married couples.

ePMedia: On abortion?

Pennacchio: I support a woman's right to choose (Roe v. Wade) without limitation.

ePMedia: On Social Security?

Pennacchio: I support Social Security solvency for the next century and beyond by means of raising the " minimum wage" to a living wage -- and, thus, raising needed Social Security dollars for long-term security.

ePMedia: John Kerry said that he thought the Iraq war was a mistake. However, when asked if he thought the U.S. soldiers killed were thus unnecessary deaths, he waffled. What is your view on the war, and on the deaths, both American and Iraqi?

Pennacchio: The Iraqi War continues to be a huge mistake that weakens the U.S. at home and abroad, alienates some three-quarters of the world's population from America, inflames radical Islam, undermines our intelligence-gathering capacity in 60-plus nations where al Qaeda seeks safe harbor, stretches our limited military personnel to the breaking point, and invites further attack on American shores. Are the 1,500-plus U.S. deaths, and 100,000-plus Iraqi deaths therefore justifiable? No.

ePMedia: Coal is a big issue in Pennsylvania. Can we successfully negotiate between the economic advantages of coal and the environmental problems it represents?

Pennacchio: Given recent technological advances in coal-extraction techniques, yes, we can do a better job balancing economics and environmental concerns. Currently, Pennsylvanians derive 58% of their electric energy from coal and 40% from nuclear. In order to move toward a cleaner environment, and less dependency on foreign oil, Pennsylvania should move more aggressively to develop renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, and biomass technologies.

ePMedia: Lastly, do you have any final comments you would like to address the Internet communities that are our primary audience?

Pennacchio: The Internet communities have a vital role to play in our citizen-based campaign for U.S. Senate -- especially because of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's attempt to shut out all competitors to conservative, anti-choice Robert Casey Jr. Democratic Party leaders are arm-twisting at all levels to prevent defections, dollars, and endorsements from going to our progressive effort. "Cliché as it often is to say it, make no mistake about the fact that the stakes are extremely high in Pennsylvania's 2006 Senate race. The implications of either a conservative Casey prevailing, or of a radical-right Santorum winning are national in scope and deeply disturbing in impact. A Casey Jr. win would embolden Democratic Party consultants to push for an anti-choice candidate for president in 2008, whereas a Santorum triumph could well lead to his appointment as Senate majority leader -- and even to a strong run for the White House in 2008. By contrast, my election, (with your support) , will send a clear message that the Democratic Party is strongest when we run on our values, when we organize at the grassroots and Netroots, and when we operate with a disciplined message, savvy campaign management, and a mentally-tough candidate.

ePMedia: Again, thank you. Even those of us not residents of Pennsylvania will be following your campaign with interest.

Pennacchio: You bet. Again, I appreciate the opportunity you've extended to our Senate campaign.