Longtime lawmaker Bud George leaves legacy of 'taking care of people'
HOUTZDALE — Clearfield County accepts no slights.
Poverty and unemployment persist just above state averages. Once-booming mines have spilled orange-tinted acidic water into streams. Small towns don't employ their own police forces anymore, pinched by tight budgets and a sliding population that peaked early in the 20th century.
None of that has stripped the pride from this blue-collar region of about 81,000 people, about two hours northeast of Pittsburgh. When a garbage company asked to turn 221 acres into a literal dumping ground — a landfill for out-of-state trash — opponents counted on one of the most influential and bombastic environmental policymakers in Pennsylvania: state Rep. Camille “Bud” George.
“There's your way and the Bud George way. Trust me: My way's a lot better,” George, 84, told the House in farewell remarks on Nov. 13. Truth is “I'd probably argue with a possum.”
As state workers tried to take away his office furniture, George recalled, “I basically told them to bend over. Because that furniture was mine, and I paid for it and put it in. They didn't.”
Such unapologetic fire became a George trademark during 19 House terms, helping position his once-little-known 74th District as a prime recipient of state money for infrastructure and other development projects. Along the way, he became the fifth longest-serving state representative in Pennsylvania history, a distinction shared with former state Rep. Frank L. Oliver, D-Philadelphia, who retired in 2010.
George will be the last World War II veteran to exit the House when he retires this week. His goodbye speech drew two standing ovations.
“He wasn't afraid to do battle with some of the giants,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who counts George, a Democrat, as a political ally and friend.
He said George's retirement means “one less strong advocate for protecting the environment, one less person to take on interests that sometimes don't have what's best for the environment foremost in their minds.”
“It's a big loss.”
Yet for all his victories, election data suggest late-career slippage for the Clearfield County native. His margin of victory in his final House race, in 2010, fell to 4 percentage points, down from 27 points in 2008. George said the transition to electronic ballots kept some loyal supporters from voting booths. Others died, he said.
County Democratic rolls lost about 1,200 voters in the past four years, while Republicans gained about 400, state data show.
“Bud George was arguably one of the most powerful men in the state,” said Tommy Sankey, 32, of Osceola Mills, the Republican who will succeed him. Sankey beat Democratic nominee Mark B. McCracken this month by 22 percentage points.
Though “there's a lot to be said for Bud George,” his influence and constituent service, the district needs someone else in Harrisburg to help prioritize state spending, Sankey said.
“We need to define what's most important for our commonwealth to survive and thrive,” said Sankey, whose six-worker company specializes in operating cranes, heavy hauling and welding. “The means by which we are spending money right now is not conducive to a pro-business environment.”
Bringing money home
In five of his 19 consecutive campaign wins, George went into the general election with both the Republican and Democratic nominations.
“I have no animosity toward Mr. George at all,” said Republican Richard Hansel, 58, of Woodward Township, who ran three times against him. Hansel said he ran because he wanted generally to pursue term limits and economic growth.
“I think the long-term legislators are what's broken in the system.”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, called George a worthy adversary.
Still, “I think his whole district will be well-represented by a new member,” Metcalfe said.
He remembers George as an “amendment king on the (House) floor” who tried repeatedly to revise Republican-backed legislation.
Whether the years-long gusher of public money will continue under Sankey is in question.
Political analyst Christopher Borick said he thinks funding for the district will drop, regardless of Sankey's affiliation.
“It's hard to replace someone like Bud George, who's institutionally a staple,” said Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “You can't manufacture that overnight, even if you are in the majority caucus, which is an advantage.”
George's legislative longevity, behind-the-scene persistence and irascibly assertive streak helped Clearfield County receive more than its fair share of state resources for projects, said current and former state officials.
For nearly two decades, George chaired the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee; he held a seat on the House Rules Committee; and in 1988 joined the first board of the Pennsylvania Infrastructure and Investment Authority, or PENNVEST, a seat he held for 24 years.
Through PENNVEST, George guided more than $200 million in public money to his district. Millions more came from other state programs “that the governors were kind enough to give me,” he said.
The money supported construction of a Wal-Mart distribution center off Interstate 80, a state prison, an ethanol plant and a Lock Haven University campus, generating hundreds of jobs.
“I took care of the area and all of the people within it every time I had the chance,” said George, who quit high school to join the Navy in 1944. “All I cared about geographically was Clearfield and its people. Then again, I never refused to help the commonwealth, no matter where” people needed help.
Clearfield County commissioners worry about the garbage dump proposal, now eight years old. The Boggs Township facility would collect 5,000 tons a day and pull hundreds of heavy trucks into the county.
The proposal is under a technical review with the state Department of Environmental Protection, DEP spokesman Dan Spadoni said. He would not speculate on when officials might act, but he said the landfill application is “not being fast-tracked.”
“We're very, very fearful ... that this will be pushed through,” said Republican Commissioner Joan Robinson McMillen, who called George a key ally in the fight.
A family feud
Derek A. Walker, 37, of Bigler is unafraid to support the landfill.
A son of another influential Clearfield County family, he concedes the plan is not ideal.
“But let's be honest with ourselves,” said Walker, president of Walker Financial Services. “We're not going to have a Toyota plant plop down in Clearfield County and create 800 jobs. It's just not going to happen.”
His family, long political adversaries of George's, once had a mining interest in the land where the dump would take shape. His father, C. Alan Walker, is secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, appointed by another George foe: Gov. Tom Corbett.
The elder Walker did not make himself available for an interview. His son spared no daggers, airing grievances that included accusing George of using bullying tactics and intimidating his critics.
Derek Walker cited July 2005, when a Houtzdale man accused George, then 77, of assaulting him and violating his civil rights. George denied the claims at the time and accused the man, John R. Gallagher, 41, of conspiring to smear and defame him. They settled a civil lawsuit out of court under undisclosed terms.
“There really has been a culture of fear,” Walker said. “If you ask him a question he didn't like, you're going to hear about it. You're going to get screamed at.”
George dismissed Walker as a member of a family that long has despised him.
“I'm just grateful I've had six kids — still have five — and they're decent, responsible, clever, learned, educated kids who love each other, love their parents and love everything about this world,” George said. “Unfortunately, Derek never learned that.”
Walker rejected George's criticism, calling it “classic Bud George.”
Life after Harrisburg
George has yet to define his retirement. His secondary role as mayor of Houtzdale will consume some of it. He plans to spend more time with Edna George, his wife of 60 years.
“Who the hell wants an 85-year-old guy down there (in Harrisburg) anyway, huh?” George asked.
Pushed to reflect on his career, he called “taking care of the people” his most important accomplishment. George went to bat for constituents entangled in bureaucracy, “whether a person didn't get his Social Security, didn't get his unemployment, didn't get his license or whatever,” he said.
“But I was able to do this and still legislate, which means I was working more than two hours a day.”
George took the lead on laws that encouraged curbside recycling programs, allowed confiscation of trucks illegally hauling toxic waste and held coal companies responsible for dirtying water. He was instrumental in doubling money for flood control, supplementing federal heating assistance money and setting standards for disposal of infectious waste.
“Sometimes, people may think he's a little rough around the edges. But my dad has one of the most caring hearts I've ever seen,” said George's daughter Candace George Lane, 57.
George said he's open to consulting and advising work.
“You know, this might sound funny, but I thank the guy upstairs for being overly kind to me,” George said. “When I look at what I had to offer, it wasn't any more than anybody else had to offer. But I just offered it and kept my word and made it work.”
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.