United States : Pennsylvania in progress ?

11 Novembre 2013

Pennsylvania, once seen as a Keystone of the US, both politically and economically, has failed to keep up with the country as a whole. A recent spat between the state’s Governor and Attorney General has thrown a spotlight on a changing state and its place in the US.

Credits -- Matt Rourke/AP
Credits -- Matt Rourke/AP
Pennsylvania does not capture the minds of foreigners like New York or California. But it is no small state. If it were a European country, Pennsylvania would rank between Greece and the Netherlands in terms of population with 12.7 million people. At nearly 600 billion in gross domestic product (GDP), it would rank between Sweden and Switzerland economically. Yet the recent comments coming from Tom Corbett, the Governor of Pennsylvania, regarding gays and gay marriage would provoke international condemnation if they came out of the mouth of a President or Prime Minister.

On October 4th Governor Tom Corbett went on public TV to clarify statements by his legal team that compared gay marriage to sex between children. The Governor attempted to salvage the remark. Gay marriage was not like relations between minors, he said, instead it was like sex between brothers and sisters.

This is only the latest chapter in an ongoing political and legal drama unfolding in a usually overlooked and staid Keystone State. The drama began on July 7th when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state of Pennsylvania on behalf of 23 gay and lesbian plaintiffs who are unable to marry under PA state law. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, who is responsible for defending the State of Pennsylvania in court, came out on July 9th to say that she believed PA’s ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional and would not defend the Pennsylvania law. She openly campaigned against PA’s ban during her election campaign.

The flare up grew larger weeks later when a clerk in Montgomery County started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples outside of Philadelphia. 174 couples received marriage licenses before a high court ordered him to stop. Their legal status remains in doubt.
Governor Tom Corbett’s legal team was handed responsibility for the initial case with the ACLU, leading to their comments in October and public outcry that followed. The comments, seemingly out of touch even with Corbett’s more mainstream Republican allies, have underlined his falling support and uphill reelection battle in 2014. However, they also illustrate major state trying, and at times failing, to modernize.

Pannsylvania is lagging

Pennsylvania has the second oldest population in the US after the retirement paradise of Florida. It sits uncomfortably inside or alongside 4 distinct regions in the US, the liberal North East and the more conservative mid-West, South and Appalachian regions. James Carville, a former Strategist for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, famous said it was “Philadelphia in the East, Pittsburgh in the West, and Alabama in between.” While Barack Obama convincingly won the state in 2008 and 2012, Hilary Clinton demolished him by 20 points in the 2008 Democratic primary by appealing to blue collar union works which forms much of the PA Democratic Party.

While Pennsylvania neighbors New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have already legalized gay marriage in their states, PA elected its first openly gay State Representative, Brian Sims, only in November 2012. He was narrowly pipped as Pennsylvania’s first gay Representative by Republican Mike Fleck, who came out only after failing to win election the same year.

That is not terribly uncommon in the culturally conservative state where it is almost as likely for parents to come out to their children as for children to come out to their parents. While the state capital, Harrisburg, was served by the openly gay Stephen Reed for almost 30 years, the state has been consistently behind the national trend in supporting gay marriage. A gay club, Stallions, only a block down 3rd street from Pennsylvania’s famously beautiful capitol building might lead one to suspect there have been more gay members of the PA House or Senate than Brian Sims and Mike Fleck.

An hesitant Pennsylvania

However, Pennsylvania has also set itself apart from its Midwestern and Southern neighbors who have added constitutional bans on gay marriage. Pennsylvania law, with a much lower threshold for change, is the only obstacle in the way of marriage reform in the Keystone state. A similar situation exists in West Virginia. In the current national debate on marriage equality, this makes Pennsylvania something of a fence sitter: not quite willing to ban constitutionally, but not yet willing to allow marriages to go ahead. As a big, swing state straddling this issue, the state has drawn attention from many groups looking for momentum on the gay marriage issue.

But Pennsylvania is also changing, even if its Governor fails to realize it. For the first time in years, many of Pennsylvania’s most promising and creative graduates are staying in state. However, this may be due to lack of opportunities elsewhere more than a resurgence in the state’s fortunes. These young, often newly urban professionals, in the state are very welcoming and tolerant of LGBTQ people. Support for gay marriage is not at or above 50% in most PA polls.

The Governor’s comments will not help his reelection campaign. He is already one of the most vulnerable governors in the US and is vilified for slashing state payments to Universities and his failure to investigate problems at Penn State University, which later exploded into the national spotlight during the Sandusky scandal in 2011. His stance on gay marriage will not win him many votes and will embarrass him (and the state) in state and national media. In the long run, the state will continue muddling on until it is able to modernize both socially and economically.

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