Former Ross commissioner wants to downsize Harrisburg


Mark Purcell doesn’t just want you to vote him on to Harrisburg.

If he wins the May 18 Democratic primary for the 20th District of the Pennsylvania State House, he wants to walk there.

“At my age, if I’m willing to walk to Harrisburg, I’ll get listened to,” said the 63-year-old native and former commissioner of Ross Township.

And Purcell wouldn’t be the first in his family to walk so far. His great-great-grandfather James Painter walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in the 1840s. Since Painter bought a house in Lawrenceville in 1851, his descendants haven’t strayed far from the tree, and Purcell counts himself as the fifth generation in the 20th District.

“I thought if they could walk to Pittsburgh to gain their liberty and freedom, then I could certainly walk to Harrisburg to gain mine,” Purcell said.

The liberty and freedom that Purcell stands to gain is that of a downsized or reorganized state legislature in Harrisburg.

“The legislature is not effective as it now stands,” Purcell said. “Pennsylvania is run by five people: the governor, the majority leaders in the House of either party, and the majority leaders in the Senate for either party.”

In his opinion, because State House and Senate leaders choose all the committee heads, they control which legislation gets out of committee and eventually gets passed.

This doesn’t give much power to the rank-and-file members, Purcell said.

As evidence, he cites the fact that only a minimal number of laws sponsored by local Democratic state representatives have been passed since 1999.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-lower Northside, and Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-North Shore, haven’t had any of their sponsored legislation passed. Former 20th District Rep. Don Walko had three sponsored bills passed, and Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, had one.

Beside a more democratic form of choosing committee heads, Purcell said making the state legislature part-time and possibly reducing the size and requiring term limits, is a recipe for the commonwealth’s success.

“The biggest problem with the legislature is the fact that it’s a career. It needs to be a part-time legislature,” he said.

Purcell thinks a part-time State House and Senate would force legislators to address the vital issues facing the state as elected public servants rather than getting caught up in the business of seeking reelection or corruption.

So how does Purcell propose to convince legislators to give up their full-time positions?

“We need to have a binding referendum on the ballot,” he said. “It should ask, do you want a constitutional convention strictly limited to restructuring the general assembly?”

Of course, a referendum to hold a constitutional convention would have to be approved by the state legislature itself before it would appear on a ballot before voters. By Purcell’s account, only one bill in favor of holding a constitutional convention out of 27 that were submitted in recent years has even come to a vote (it was voted down).

But Purcell believes his several years of experience as chief-of-staff to Rep. Bill Kortz, D-McKeesport, will be a boon to his chances of getting the referendum passed.

His 20 years as one of nine Ross Township commissioners, a part-time position, is what he credits for his political experience.

Unlike my competitors, “I actually have a track record of reform,” Purcell said. Of course, this is naturally the case, since the three other candidates for the seat have never held elective office.

Purcell cites his move to end pensions for township commissioners state wide as his greatest reform. Having served five terms from 1978 to 1998 (the pension only required three), Purcell would now be eligible for the pension, had he not fought to end it in the beginning of his career.

Two of his other reform ideas didn’t become law though. Both his move to combine Westview and Ross police departments and to reduce the number of Ross commissioners from nine to five to save money were unsuccessful.

Besides reforming the legislature, Purcell’s other main concern is the violence in public schools.

“No teacher should have to teach in that environment, and no student should have to learn in that environment,” Purcell said.

He advocates for providing more school police and having school officials admit that curbing violent behavior is the first step in making sure students excel in a learning environment. He points to a Propel charter school in Mckeesport that has produced high achievement scores among poorer students from Duquesne.

Beside this policy, Purcell said voters who elect him should expect him to bring back funding from Harrisburg to both demolish dilapidated buildings and renovate those that can be saved. He proposes that Pittsburgh hire a private lobbyist to help it get a better share of state money.

So does Mark Purcell think he has the votes to win on May 18?

He said he’s not certain, but there is one thing he does know.

“Adam Ravenstahl will come in third or last.”

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