Expert: Rep. Jesse White 'can't have it both ways' in drilling debate
HARRISBURG — State Rep. Jesse White isn't a familiar face at Capitol news conferences, but his messages fill online social media almost around the clock.
A relatively obscure House member since 2007, the Cecil Democrat remains unknown to many analysts who watch the Legislature. Yet White, 34, gets dozens of responses to his tweets, blogs and posts to Facebook and news sites from supporters energized by his sharp critiques of the booming natural gas industry.
His profile in Western Pennsylvania has risen, and the spotlight on him is as hot as ever.
White's public spat with Range Resources Inc., an $11 billion company leading the Marcellus shale gas rush in Washington County, erupted last week when the company released emails the lawmaker had exchanged with Range executives involving campaign fundraising, and letters asking White not to imply that Range hires illegal workers from Mexico.
The fundraising requests, specifically one that mentioned legislation, led a Republican House leader to suggest the state attorney general should investigate White.
Such a public profile can hurt White as much as it helps, especially if his message is not clear and consistent, experts said.
“You don't put stuff on email you can't erase, and on Facebook and other stuff. I don't know, for an educated man ... ,” Washington County Democratic Committee Chairman George Vitteck mused. “You've got to stay in the background. Take your hits and go down the road.”
White wrote a 2,911-word essay in his defense on his campaign website. As he has done many times, he claimed Range is attacking his character. He espoused his support for gas drilling but explained his critiques of the industry.
“He can't have it both ways,” said Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. Shuster heard White making his case on KDKA Radio and thought he lacked facts.
“He doesn't bother to do his homework to any great depth,” Shuster said. “If you look in total at the things he said, it does raise a red flag as to the timing” of White's break with Range, Shuster said — whether that happened when Range cut off campaign donations in 2011.
White said that's not the case. He maintains he made principled decisions, based on problems he saw accumulating as shale gas drilling increased in his district.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said White is an intelligent and valued lawmaker.
“He is a strong voice for the people he represents, and he wants a sensible approach to shale gas development, in which state and local governing bodies have all the tools they need to protect landowners and the environment,” Dermody said.
Building a name
White's change of heart started in 2010 when employees from Range business partner MarkWest Energy Partners LP boycotted businesses in Mt. Pleasant over a disagreement with township officials, he said. As he talked with municipal officials during the next year, White said, he heard common problems: Most felt pressure to cooperate with Range, the region's most visible driller, thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign.
“For people who say they want to be good neighbors, this was not the right approach,” White said. “What we really saw was the bullying attitude (toward) our local governments. ... When we tried to bring everyone on the same page, Range became increasingly hostile toward that.”
Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said no single incident prompted the breakup between company and lawmaker.
“We remain prepared to work with anyone,” he said, denying the bullying allegations.
Pitzarella claims White is trying to build his political reputation by falsely attacking Range and the Marcellus shale gas industry.
Philadelphia media strategist Larry Ceisler said Range's strategy of releasing email exchanges with a lawmaker is unusual.
“I have never heard of information like this being leaked and having the source take credit for it,” Ceisler said.
Longtime political analysts said White rarely shows up on their radar.
“I don't know anything about him,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster with Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I've heard of him” through literature from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-drilling association, said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“I can't remember anything specific,” Borick said. “I haven't heard of him being a major presence in the (House Democratic) caucus. He wouldn't be a name that comes to mind as someone prominent.”
If White had a low profile, “a lot of people know who he is now,” Ceisler said.
Not many people in his district knew White when he first ran for state representative about 10 years ago, Vitteck said. White's grandfather, Pete Cassidy, an organizer for the United Steelworkers, had political connections in Cecil and introduced White to show him “the ins-and-outs of politics,” Vitteck said.
Hard work and a sharp intellect took White, then a recent law school graduate, the rest of the way, Vitteck said.
Municipal officials got to know him as an accessible advocate for their needs in Harrisburg. He took their calls and arranged state grant money for sewer and road projects and public safety equipment, said officials from Cecil, Cross Creek, Mt. Pleasant, Robinson and South Fayette.
A big help for some occurred in 2010 when White organized the Marcellus Municipal Co-op, a group to unite local officials with concerns about the growing gas industry.
It took courage and commitment to bring the group together, said George M. Lucchino, a three-term supervisor in Robinson who retired last year. Members met on Saturdays, and White helped them devise a united front to enforce local rules for drill sites, Lucchino said.
“I thought it was fantastic, because he got everybody together so we could hear what our problems were,” Lucchino said. “When he started that co-op, I felt like he did more for the communities than anyone else I'd ever seen.”
Range officials questioned the group's usefulness from the start. Yet several of the communities later became central to legal challenges over land use and local control of drilling operations. Cecil, Robinson, South Fayette and Mt. Pleasant — along with Peters, which is not in the co-op — are among plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn a February 2012 law that set fees for drilling wells but stripped municipalities of authority over drill sites. The state Supreme Court will decide the case.
White built a reputation as an expert in such matters and began to receive widespread attention as he dispensed advice to communities. He became a regular critic of the industry and of oil and gas policy suggestions from Republican leaders in Harrisburg.
That helped his constituents, Lucchino said, and gave White some political influence. Lucchino thinks White probably held certain principles from the beginning and became more outspoken when he realized it could help him politically.
White has said he supports drilling but questions some company practices, especially Range.
It's impossible to know White's motivation, but his positions today fit his past political strategy, Vitteck said.
“What he's always done, he's taken a populist view,” Vitteck said. “And when you take a populist view, you put yourself ... on the razor's edge.”