Every time I hear the quote it makes my skin crawl: Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. Political consultant James Carville said some version of this quip while working on Bob Casey, Sr.’s gubernatorial campaign in 1986. Today I hear it from advocates, including my own colleagues, on a nearly constant basis. It’s usually said by people from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and is meant as a slam on those of us from the rest of the state.
There are all kinds of threads to pull apart with this quote, starting with the idea that being “Alabama” is a slam. (Carville claims that he only meant that in central and northern PA, people are conservative and churchgoers.)
The meaning that has been projected onto this line, that Pennsylvanians not from Philly or Pittsburgh are bumpkins who take positions on issues based on visceral reactions and fears, is wrong. And it’s time for civil rights advocates and civil libertarians to retire the quote.
Carville was not talking about civil liberties, but let’s consider the quote from a civil liberties perspective and why it doesn’t work.
Philly ain’t that great. The city of Philadelphia is responsible for many civil liberties problems. Example A just occurred a few weeks ago when a 17-year-old boy was hit with a Taser by a Philadelphia police officer after the boy ran onto the field at a Phillies game. The kid did something dumb, but he was not a physical threat to anyone. Philadelphia PD is notorious for using excessive force, and this was just another example.
The city has also cost the taxpayers of this commonwealth millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of dollars because the former, long-time district attorney, Lynne Abraham, insisted on pursuing the death penalty in nearly every homicide case she presided over during her 18-year reign as DA. As a result, a majority of people on death row are from Philadelphia.
The people of Philadelphia elected and re-elected Abraham four times.
Philadelphia is also now participating in the federal government’s Secure Communities program. You know, we have to “secure our communities” from those robbing, raping, thieving illegal aliens. The city police department’s arrest database is linked to ICE. It sounds good in theory, but there is a horrendous track record of racial profiling and harassment when local law enforcement and ICE work together.
Civil liberties belong to all of us. Our national executive director, Anthony Romero, once said that civil liberties don’t belong to only the liberal wing of the Democratic Party or the conservative wing of the Republican Party. We have numerous examples of state legislators from areas of the state outside of Philly and Pittsburgh standing up for our rights. Four of the eight senators who voted to table the constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage in March were from areas other than the southeast and southwest. Our greatest champions in opposition to the commonwealth implementing Real ID have been from the “Alabama” area of the state. The list goes on.
The quote disempowers people. When my fellow advocates throw this quip around, the message to those of us in the middle of the state is, Give up. Before becoming legislative director, I was ACLU-PA’s community organizer for central PA. It was clear that supporters of the ACLU’s mission in this area of the state felt frustrated and had no faith in their fellow citizens. By quoting Carville, we advocates add to that disempowerment.
Carville was wrong about Pennsylvania. We are a striped state where no political ideology dominates. As civil libertarians, we must be willing to talk about our issues wherever the people are, and talk with them in their language, and not simply huddle in the big cities.
(I also recommend this piece from Politico, which quotes numerous PA political observers on the inaccuracy of the line.)
Andy in Harrisburg