Thursday, August 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

What does wealthy Chester County owe Pa., Philly?

Sen. Dinniman on "the Chester County dream" (dogs to horses), land tax breaks and public school protests, farm and pharm, Jews and Quakers

What does wealthy Chester County owe Pa., Philly?

Pa. state Sen. Andrew Dinniman (R., Chester). (File Photo)
Pa. state Sen. Andrew Dinniman (R., Chester). (File Photo)

Three things about State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, two from recent headlines: He is pro-West Chester University abandoning the shrunken Pennsylvania state universities system; he is against letting Philabundance, the food-donations juggernaut, push suburban charities aside to feed poor Philadelphians. Plus, he wins elections as a Democrat in a district that had voted Republican since before Teddy Roosevelt.

I wanted to know how Dinniman and his voters in Chester County, now the wealthiest of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, see their role toward less prosperous parts of the Commonwealth, so I stopped by his West Chester office, and he cheerfully explained: 

How he gets Republicans to support him: In the horse country, almost all those people are friends. They know me from open-space preservation (laws that give tax breaks for not developing land). That helps explain why I'm the first Democrat to hold this seat since the 1890s.

How conservative is Chester County? In the middle -- perhaps five degrees to the right. They'll tolerate a politician 10 degrees to the left. Then they stop. I've won, even in the most Republican townships -- I won Willistown before it was (redistricted away.) 

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From a base of maybe liberal Quakers and Jewish voters? -- Exactly. Look, the polls say we are 11 percent 'very conservative' out here, 11 percent 'very liberal'. The bulk is in the middle. 5 percent more is 'somewhat conservative' (vs. 'somewhat liberal').

So usually in these elections I'm able to keep 95 percent of the Democrats, two-thirds of the independents, 40 percent of the Republicans. Others who express a point of view that's in the middle can do equally well. (Two statewide Democratic winners, Gov. Ed) Rendell did about the same, (U.S. Sen.) Bob Casey did about the same.

How to talk to Chester County people: To me the most fascinating thing about Chester County and about winnnig here, is that you can be progressive, but you have to speak the language of Chester County:

You don't talk about 'the Poor versus the Rich' here. It's because so many people here are rich, or they moved here because they want to become rich, or they wanted to hang out in an upwardly mobile community.

Instead. you refer to 'our Quaker tradition', 'our respect for the dignity of each person.' So you can state a progressive stance, get people behind you on an issue, they'll vote for you. But you have to state it in the cultural terms of Chester County. 

Often those statewide politicians and even people who run for office in the county talk the language of the cities. They lose here.

It's not that people are that conservative. People are in the middle of the road. They're good, decent people who care about their families and want a good education for their kids.

But you have to talk politics and issues in the language that they would use every day.

I'll give you another example. I was at an event where they were talking about 'microenterprises' for poor people. They used the term 'Empowering the poor.' And I saw businesspeople were backing away. From that word, 'Empowering.'

All I had to do was change that word to Entrepreneurship -- I got up there and said, 'This is about extending Entrepreneurship' - and I got everyone together. Because, in essence, that's what it is. Empowerment is Entrepreneurship. Explain it in the terms they understand, and they will support it.

Growth, and three issues: Chester County has changed, it's moved to the middle of the road, as it's become the fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania. I was just told last night, it's fascinating if it's true, that (the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) says we will be larger (population) than Delaware County in the next decade. 

There are clear issues here that people deeply care about. And you have to have the intellect and the ability and the will to talk about those issues at the level of the people here.

Tax breaks and land conservation: One is preserving the 'open spaces and historic places', Mrs. Morris used to use that term. (Widow of the late State Rep. Sam Morris, D-Chester, who represented the ex-industrial city of Coatesville and its growing township neighbors in the 1970s and 80s; both, like Dinniman, were active in the tax-break-for-land-conservation movement.) She was one of the first person in the conservancies.  

We'd poll people, and the issue crosses party lines. That's one thing people feel strongly about: keeping the character of the communities, open space, historic preservation.

There's a special sense of place that is Chester County. People know it, they feel it, they sense it and they don't want to lose it. They don't want to look like every other homogenized suburb in America.

Taxpayer-funded education: Even with all the attacks on public education, Chester Countians think their schools are pretty damn good. They are. They're some of the best in the nation. Parents care deeply about their schools.

So when the state this year wanted to impose graduation exams, you'd think people here would say, 'Fine, our students will do well.' But (a lot of) the opposition to the graduation exams came from my district. Why? They value their schools. They know their kids get a good education. They want the federal and state government to stay out of their business before they destroy something that's good.

It was fascinating to me to see this. What happened here is interesting. These Main Line school districts, Radnor, Tredyffrin/Easttown, Great Valley, and West Chester Area which is sort of on the Main Line, they all passed resolutions against the graduation exams. They began to realize that what happened in Philadelphia and Chester City, how the state came in (and took over public schools without increasing funding or improving performance) could happen to us.

You'll see a huge rally (later this year) on the Main Line to support public schools (location not yet determined). For the first time we're seeing a politiciaization on the public education issue by the citizens of this county.

But with it is also a realization that the city and the suburbs are in the same boat when it comes to education. We all need to make a commitment to public education. And in the polling for the gubernatorial races this has become the number one issue. They all feel pride in their schools, and not wanting state and federal policy to destroy what is very valuable here, even understanding that we are all in the boat together, is a part and parcel of the political discussions here.

We're modern: There's an understanding and appreciation of high tech industry here. Especially biopharma. One doesn't have to explain, in Chester County, that the Industrial Age is over and we're in a new era -- because people here already live in the Information Age. Many are on the cusp of the changes that are taking place. Biopharma is going through a global transformation. Sen. Erickson and I head up the Biopharma Caucus in the Legislature. 

The survival of that industry (Dinniman folds his hands and closes eyes as if in prayer), the realization it can take ten years (to develop a therapy) but when they succeed we strike gold in this community -- all that is here.  

Some Pennsylvanians aren't: It's a very different mindset when I go to see some of my colleagues in the legislature. You know, there are still some rural counties that look at getting a prison or expanding the PennDOT shed as key to their economic development.

Here, people understand. And they understand the risks and ups and downs of this global operation.

My own background as a professor, I taught Global Systems, for me one of the great privileges is to take what I was teaching about the impact of globalization on local communities, and be able to see it at work and to bring people together so we can figure out how to deal with this situation.

We're special, in Chester County: Smart people are looking for a decent quality of life. Something more than just the dollar. Bright people can go anywhere. If you have a county that maintains its sense of place, its specialness, they'll want to come here. So you see in some ways all this fits in together. The way you make money today is no longer through mass production. You make it through customization, through identifying and solving the needs of the client.

The problems become more complex. People need to work together in a multidisciplinary way. The key is education. People have to be trained to do that. So the focus on education fits perfectly into the new economy.

The reason I've been able to succeed here, unlike many other Democrats, is understanding the relationship between education, the new economy, and the quality of life. And talking about it, not as a Democrat or as a Republican, but in the very language and terms that people talk to each other about it.

The Chester County dream: Then there are subissues that get tied into all this in a very strange way. For example, dogs.

To be a Chester Countian, there's two things that happen. You may start in a townhouse. But you want to end on a 10-acre spread with two horses and a little barn. That's how you know you've made it.

Along the way you have to have a couple of dogs. And a cat or two.

So there's a great caring about animals here. You can't understand a history of Chester County without understanding the history of the horse.

The other day in Harrisburg they were asking me why I support the horse industry. They said, 'You don't have racetracks.' I said, 'It saves the open space in Chester County. And, equine agriculture is big business in Chester County. That, and growing mushrooms.'

So, you know, the SPCA here was going to fall apart. We have factions. The problem is, each of them loves animals, and each doesn't want to compromise. So we're trying to cool them off.  

You say people in Chester County love public schools. But don't they draw the line at funding other people's public schools -- especially Philadelphia's? (He points across the street) Two weeks ago, in the Lincoln Building over there, we had a meeting, we had Larry Feinberg who runs the state school boards association, we had Helen Gym who came up from Philadelphia for Parents United, we had some of the key black pastors from Philadelphia -- one came, the others were on the phone -- we had the PFT and the PSEA (teacher unions) and parent reps from all over. To plan that May 10 rally on the Main Line. It's very healthy -- we are bringing together people who understand the relationship between education and opportunity in the new economy. They do not want the federal government hurting what we have. They want to solve it.

Don't people in Chester County think they pay enough taxes - and have enough poverty to deal with - without bailing out Philadelphia? It's both. The county is one of the most successful places, in terms of the economy and the quality of life. But there's also an understanding we exist in a larger regional and global context.

How do we take our Quaker heritage -- which by the way was fiscal conservative but social progressive -- and put it into the context of a new age? I don't think there's an easy answer to it. But a least I'm a politician who's asking the questions.

Your old college, West Chester University, has prospered, while most of the State System of Higher Education schools are losing students. So you want West Chester to pull out with its resources, and leave the others to decline? What we're saying here -- Chester County (and by implication local institutions like WCU) succeeds because we understand quality of life depends on accepting change. No institution is going to continue to exist until it understands that constant and enduring change is the given.

So what happens in other areas of the state, people think they can just do the same thing the same way and get by (even though enrollments are falling). They're gonna crash.

All (West Chester separation bill co-sponsor Sen. Tommy) Tomlinson (R-Bucks, a WCU grad and trustee) and I are saying is, 'Listen, this is a house of cards that's coming down, man. West Chester is succeeding. We want you to leave our university alone.' Like we want you to leave our schools alone.

'And, by the way we have some models here, you might want to see why West Chester is succeeding. We're not the enemy. We're trying to save you from yourselves.'

We certainly maintain that fiscal conservatism. We're not asking anyone for more help. We believe in self-reliance. On the other hand, in each of these situations, we're saying, 'We're here to work with you.'

And West Chester isn't just leaving the system. It's saying, we will work with the system to figure out a depreciated value of all our buildings that taxpayers paid for and pay it back (to the state system and for student scholarships) over 30 years. 

But the way it is now, no one wants to deal with the fiscal realities of a $60 million (state university system budget-to-revenue) gap. No one wants to deal with the demographic reality that there's 7,000 students less in these schools than in 2009. And no one wants to discuss the issue of enduring change. They want to hold the line and survive. But they have to deal with fiscal and demographic realities.

The problem, with so many issues, people are denying them. I believe we're facing these problems in our county.

Government and nonprofit institutions don't face the same pressure for change as in the private sector -- Right. In a corporation you have to respond (to fiscal and demographic change). 

Change is a painful teacher; no one wants to take its class.

What's happening in the state system -- you'd think educational institutions that teach this stuff would be in the forefront. But they're not.  They're resistant to changing how they deliver services. Universities are these giant oak trees that can't move in the storm with the change around them. And they're going to go down. Like big trees in a hurricane. 

West Chester has shown it can be agile and flexible. We're saying, 'Don't hate us because we're successful.'

(Gov. Tom Corbett) with great fanfare after he cut all these universities' funding in 2010 established his Advisory Commission on Higher Education. Put in all the presidents of the Universities. Rob Wonderling (ex-state senator, R-Montgomery; current head of Philadelphia's chamber of commerce) was the chair. They met for months. They issued a report a year and a half ago. Absolutely nothing has been done with that report. It's sitting on endless desks in the capital.

Sen. Tomlinson and I are saying, 'West Chester wants to buy its freedom.' And we're trying to get people to discuss the report (shift or close some programs, cut spending, invest in popular new fields and online). You know he was a star football player at West Chester? He loves West Chester University. I'm a Democrat, he's a Republican, I supported putting him on the West Chester board. It's composed of business leaders who understand the new economy. 

Is everyone at WCU behind the change? The faculty is split. The sciences are for it. They understand how the new University is partly about the commercialization of research in the marketplace. The University gets its share, that's how it grows and survives. The humanities, are not quite there yet.

The college as business: If there's no money on the state level, what other choice does the University have but to be entrepreneurial? If West Chester University is entrepreneurial and if West Chester is only getting 24 pct of its budget from the state, ask what any business person would ask: What business would allow the minority 24 percent investor to determine policy for the other 76 pct of investors? This notion that a minority state interest should determine policy is contrary to the Industrial Age way as well as the new Information Age.

About his criticism of Philadbundance: Philabundance operated with a big stick. It's my job to stir the pot.

So why would Philabundance take product from West Chester to Philadelphia and sell it back to us at 19 cents a pound to cover the cost of transportation?

We're saying, 'You have all these needs in the city, so you're coming out here, and you want to tell these food operations such as West Chester Food Cupboard what to do? We'll take care of it without asking for any of your resources, and we'll send our excess out of the county, sometimes to Philabundance. But sometimes also to Wilmington, which is much closer.'

The management of Acme, which includes Jim Perkins, the President, came down, sat at this table, and said, 'You're right, the Acme here will (send extra food) to West Chester Food Cubpoard.' It was solved once Acme understood what they were saying. That was the old arrangement before Philabundance, actually.

A farming future: You know there's a very small, very rich, very generous group of people here in Chester County who get behind all the good causes. So we've been talking about how to hook into sustainable agriculture. The people involved with horses in Willistown and in Unionville are also very much in open space and sustainable agriculture.

There's a lot of horse manure, no? That's why the mushroom industry's a good thing. (Mushrooms are grown in compost derived from manure)

The basis of Chester County wealth: We're farms and pharms. We have to keep both alive. Agribusiness is ahead of anything else in this county.

Sharing, Quaker-plus style: Chester County's obligation is based on its Quaker heritage, added by other faith traditions, to provide people with the means so they can help themselves. Every speech I've given to groups invovled in helping the poor, I end the same way, for 20 years: 'We will not be judged by our history or by our God on how wealthy we are. We'll be judged on whether we're good people of faith who understand, when you have an aubundant harvest, you have to share the harvest.'

But we share the harvest in a Chester County way. You also help people to help themselves. We share by modeling our behavior (for others to follow). We share by example. We don't ask anyone to help us.

Common wealth begins at home: Our first obligation is to help our family, which is Chester County. Our second obligation is to reach out to our extended family, which is the Philadelphia region.

But don't punish us, don't push us back, don't destroy our excellence, by state and federal edicts that make no sense in the first place and that are contrary to being prosperous.

What I'm saying is perhaps the new political voice which needs to be heard. Understand education, and the tie to tech prosperity, the fact you have an obligation to family but also to model behavior and to give to others so they too can succeed.

What good does it do to go down as a univeristy, how does it help anyone else, if we lessen our excellence? Isn't succeeding a good thing?

What's changed in Chester County: I'm Jewish, you know? We have one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities on the East Coast and one of the youngest Jewish communities in the Philadelphia region. All the synagogues have expanded. And we have the largest interfaith Jewish community.

And you relate that to Quaker heritage? No one comes to Chester County without being deeply moved by the Quakers, their sense of public obligation. It is like the idea of Tikkun olam in in our Jewish heritage, an endless obligation to repair the world. (Sounds Franciscan --) And Jesuit. It's in a lot of faith heritages.

What's fascinating here, what appeals, you combine the fiscal conservatism with the shared faith conviction of obligation to others and it's amazing what comes out of this. Fiscal conservatism results in prosperity; committment to others results in responsibility to help others; an understanding everyone has value and dignity.

And that's exactly where I'm coming from. When we got everyone together to talk about food (donations), we brought all the faith traditions together in an Assemblies of God, conservative, Evangelical church. We then opened this Torah that the Nazis had tried to destroy, it's been on display in a museum in Czechoslovakia? We opened it, and everyone held it and we all together understood we're a family together. Muslims were there, the Baha'i were there. That understanding we all talked about: our obligation to others.

So it is really out here, in Chester County, trying to combine the fiscal conservatism necessary for successful entrepreneurship, together with the social responsibility of faith. it's a mixture that works. 

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

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