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Capitol rookies' mission: reshape vision of leadership

Rick Saccone can put a number on his dissatisfaction with Harrisburg.

17,433.

That's the number of doors the St. Vincent College political science professor knocked on during his drive to unseat 13-term Rep. Dave Levdansky, D-Forward. Fed up with broken promises, entrenched power and what many view as a disconnect between the people and their government, Saccone joined a wave of candidates who, in the last three elections, replaced more than half of the General Assembly.

Rather than take one of the well-worn paths to Harrisburg -- law school, a job as a party or union organizer, or local elected office -- an increasing number of representatives are coming from outside the political realm. Among the 28 newcomers to take office in January are a carpenter, a cop, a farmer and a stay-at-home mom who named her children Kennedy, Carter and Reagan.

"Like most of the people these days, I'm just really dissatisfied with the direction of the government," said Saccone, 52, of Elizabeth Township. "I talked to people on their porches, in their living rooms, at their kitchen tables, in their driveways. That's what made the difference -- religiously going out, regardless of the heat and the weather ... six hours a day, every day. It was a grueling process."

Unofficial returns show Saccone squeaked by with a 125-vote margin.

It's been a punishing four years for Harrisburg lawmakers. In the 2006 election, the first after the infamous pay raise, 52 new members were elected, including 22 who beat incumbents. That was more than at any time since 1978. Two years later, voters elected 30 new representatives, including six who defeated incumbents. Twenty-eight newcomers take office in January.

Some of the youngest members of next year's freshman class knocked out top-tier lawmakers such as House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne County, and former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, who faces criminal prosecution. Republican Tarah Toohil, 31, beat Eachus by 10 percentage points. Kevin Boyle, at 28 the youngest of the class, beat Perzel by nearly 8 percentage points.

"Half the Legislature has changed, many of them elected on platforms of no pay hikes, no tax hikes (and other) reform platforms. We'll see now if any of it really matters. So far, it hasn't," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Despite lawmakers' promises of reform after the 2006 election, leaders control secret accounts with hundreds of millions of dollars, and legislators collect expense reimbursements without providing receipts.

"You can change many members in the assembly. If you're not changing the leadership and the vision of leadership as well, it's not going to get done," said George Dunbar, 50, of Penn Township. The former Westmoreland County GOP chairman -- not every freshman will be a political neophyte -- beat seven-term incumbent Rep. Jim Casorio, D-Irwin, by 3.6 percentage points.

Leaders negotiate major legislation behind closed doors and decide which rank-and-file bills come up for votes.

"To be at all effective, you have to go along to get along," Madonna said. New members "just get absorbed by the culture."

Saccone says he has no interest in sticking around Harrisburg. The former Air Force counterintelligence officer spent a year apiece in Iraq and North Korea, has written eight books and enjoys the teaching career he'll soon put on hold. He didn't plan on running for office until about 15 months ago, and he will stay in office no longer than eight years, he said.

"If they're doing what they're supposed to do, I don't have to do it," Saccone said.

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