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Stairs called 'a nice guy'

| Tuesday, April 11, 2006

State House candidates Robert E. Helterbran Jr., of Ligonier, and Kathy Marks, of Mt. Pleasant, agree on one thing in their primary battles to win the Republican nomination in the 59th District.

The man they are trying to unseat, Rep. Jess Stairs, of Acme, is a nice guy.

That's as close as either candidate will get to a personal attack on the 64-year-old Stairs, who has been in Harrisburg for nearly 30 years.

Helterbran and Marks decided to seek the nomination after last year's legislative pay raise resulted in a public backlash that forced lawmakers to rescind the pay grab.

Both approached PaClean Sweep about running and met with officials from the grass-roots political reform group. Both charge that Stairs hasn't been engaged in important issues in Harrisburg.

If he's elected, Helterbran said he would become more involved in reform issues involving property tax, equal state funding for school districts and the malpractice insurance industry. He also would support public approval for any future pay hikes.

Marks wants term limits for lawmakers and property tax reform.

"This shouldn't be a career. I'm running to let him know we're out there. We are paying attention to what's going on in Harrisburg," she said.

Although Stairs voted against last year's pay raise for lawmakers, Marks questions why he didn't object and was slow in criticizing the early morning vote that was passed without debate.

"Why didn't he speak up?" Marks asked.

The 59th District encompasses the Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant Township and part of Unity and Hempfield townships. Stairs also represents a small portion of Fayette County.

Stairs said Friday that he opposed the raise in private during meetings of the House Republican Caucus.

"We did have a very spirited debate in caucus," he said. "I can't force a member to vote one way or the other. My feelings about the raise were made known. It certainly was debated by members before the vote."

Marks said Stairs has kept such a low profile that most voters she talks to don't realize he's been in Harrisburg for nearly three decades. Now that he has challengers, Stairs has been working like it's his first campaign, she said.

"I've seen more of him than I have in previous years," she said. "People wonder how he's stayed in office for so long, because people know so little about him."

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause in Harrisburg, said Stairs has not been active in movements to reform state government. He did sponsor a measure to reduce the size of the General Assembly, but "it's not going anywhere," Kauffman said.

"He's never expressed any interest in government integrity issues such as open records, sunshine laws, lobbyist and campaign-finance reform, or redistricting," he said.

Living in a district that is largely rural, conservative and Democratic, Stairs has been in the General Assembly since 1977 and has faced token opposition or free rides in past re-election campaigns.

His legislative record in Harrisburg has been mixed.

While he has sponsored the state's Charter School legislation, the Parental Right-To-Know Act, and a bill to reduce the size of the Legislature, Stairs also engineered a compromise for then-Gov. Tom Ridge's school voucher plan, which Stairs opposed.

He has a bill establishing a home mortgage program for volunteer firefighters and bills aimed at improving the nutrition and health of students.

A review of the 2005-06 legislative session shows Stairs sponsoring or co-sponsoring resolutions congratulating Iraqis on free elections and declaring a number of commemorative dates: Beef Month, Farm Bureau Day, Rural Road Safety Month, Community Banking Week, School Retirees Appreciation Month, Maple Producers Week and Older Pennsylvanians Month.

A farmer, Stairs owns the 293-acre Lawaness Farms in Acme and is interested in agricultural as well as education issues.

Stairs dismisses the criticism of Helterbran and Marks as "campaign rhetoric."

"Let the people decide whether Jess Stairs does anything," he said. "I've been visible. I've been active."

Stairs' war chest is more than $94,000, which for a district his size is a powerful re-election weapon. That figure is not lost on Marks or Helterbran.

Both say they are trying to counter the money by going door to door, speaking to groups and meeting as many district voters as they can.

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