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Minor Machiavellians

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Lord Acton was right on when he spoke of the corrupting influence of power. Corruption happens in the tiny as well as the grand, on the local level as well as the national, even in something as insignificant as a civic association election.

It was 2006 and an upstart retired admiral — Joe Sestak, a Democrat — had the audacity to challenge Curt Weldon, the keeper of the Republican keys in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District. Worse yet, polls had Sestak winning. The local elephant was fighting to hold back tears when a scandal involving Weldon, his daughter, and kickbacks broke in the news.

That was the big story, but locally another election was afoot. The Chadds Ford Civic Association was having an election for half of its board of directors the night after the general election.

The civic association board had been another Republican stronghold, a lap dog for the all-Republican board of supervisors and a bit of an audition venue for party members who wanted to get involved with township government on a committee level. That year, though, Democrats were running, too.

There was only so much the local GOP could handle. It was stressed when the worst happened: Sestak beat the 20-year- incumbent Weldon. Could local Republicans save face and pull out a minor victory elsewhere?

Civic association members gathered the next night and were handed ballots on the way into the meeting room. There were twelve names, six Republicans and six Democrats. Names were not listed alphabetically nor did the ballot mention party affiliation, but the candidates were grouped by party with the first six names being those of the Republicans.

One of the people handing out the ballots — the leader of the local GOP, association secretary at the time and a past president of the group — supposedly told people to vote only for the top six.

During the meeting, the president said he was looking forward to having some Democrats on the board.

When the votes were tallied, one of the Democrats had won a seat as director. But the association president and one of his advisors then called for a count of proxy votes.

Proxy votes? There was no proxy voting mentioned in the by-laws.

The discussion was heated between the two Republicans and the head of the township Democrats, but the proxies were counted. The recount reversed the election and the Democrat lost. Then it got interesting.

As it turned out, the Republicans had been handing out proxy ballots at the polls during the general election the day before. Select voters were handed a sheet of paper listing the candidates, but authorizing the proxy holder to make the choice.

I was the reporter who saw the argument over using the proxies. I was in the hallway observing the count when it happened. I took my notes and knew I’d need to get more-detailed interviews the next day.

I called the association president the following morning. He said he genuinely wanted to get some Democrats onto the board and that he wasn’t behind the proxy drive. But that night I learned he had been one of the people handing out the proxy ballots.

The following morning I called him again. This time he said he handed them out only to a few people who lived on his street. But the people who told me they had gotten the ballots from him lived in two other parts of the township. They were not neighbors.

I wrote several stories about the incident and at least two critical editorials. That incident generated more letters to the editor than any other story I had ever covered, even more than a story about a reputed brothel’s being raided.

All of the letters attacked the election and they all came from Republicans who were ashamed, and said so, of being associated with people who would do such a thing to their neighbors. Many people dropped out of the association.

What was the Republican leadership thinking? It was a civic association election, for crying out loud. Why mess with that? Power does not live there.

But, while it might have been a minor election with no real political significance, there were enough minor Machiavellians who wanted to play for keeps. It’s the nature of power to want to grow and expand for its own sake, no matter how ridiculous or inconsequential the situation.

While many good Republicans complained publicly and while others turned their backs on the civic association, nothing really changed. The newly seated board re-elected the association president and the Republican Party continues ruling the roost with the same leadership. There was no need to manipulate the election, but power must exert itself.

The party got away with what it did because it could. Not enough people cared, not about Democrats, anyway.

Therein lies another truth. There is an attitude of some people that whatever happens to another person or group is OK. One person recently told me she doesn’t care about the rights of rich people because rich people don’t care about her. She, like so many others doesn’t, or won’t, accept the fact that rights, liberty, and even something as simple as fair play apply to all, even to one’s political opponents. If only the Machiavellians could accept that principle.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.