Divorced from Washington

Member Group : Salena Zito

BEDFORD – Although it closed decades ago, the G.C. Murphy Co. name remains integrated on the tiled floor of Founders Crossing, an antique store and café now occupying the corner of Lincoln Highway and Juliana Street here.

In the 19th-century Italianate building’s basement, where shoppers once found even deeper discounts to Murphy’s already-bargain merchandise, a young couple discussed whether to buy a chest of drawers. That led to an offhand remark about Washington that reflected an escalating national sentiment.

"We complain all the time about how unaccountable Washington is, with everything from scandals, bureaucracy, being out of touch, to not using our money wisely," the husband told his wife as she made skeptical third and fourth inspections of the old but well-built dresser. "We’d be hypocrites if we acted the same."

He finally convinced her that secondhand fit their budget much better than new.

Murphy’s stores once anchored many small and midsized American towns. The Western Pennsylvania-based five-and-dime’s presence stretched to more than 500 stores from New England to Texas.

For most of its existence, Murphy’s gave customers what they needed, gave generations of young people their first jobs and, by all accounts, treated its employees well.

It never got too big. It stayed profitable, made cuts when needed, but eventually was bought out during the corporate raiding of the 1980s.

The new owners immediately mishandled the brand by changing the name, offering cheap stuff rather than bargain-priced quality merchandise and overshooting its margins.

It ended as all mismanaged, out-of-touch businesses do — in bankruptcy.

Washington, in America’s eyes, seems much the same today. The once-dependable workhorse capital, to which middle-class America proudly sent one of its own to represent it, now appears to be bankrupt.

That attitude is not just found in anecdotal encounters like the young couple in the antique shop basement.

Pollster and political veteran Pat Caddell has pored through data after conducting broad national research among 3,200 likely voters of all parties and demographics. What he discovered conflicts with the storyline of pundits and political strategists, which holds that Americans are hopelessly divided politically.

Instead, Caddell found Americans to be divided from Washington and ready for reformist candidates who focus on issues.

His data support the many interviews this columnist has conducted along America’s secondary "blue highways," finding voters from different generations, backgrounds, ideals, values and colors, who all say they are looking for someone like them — someone authentic who will take on Washington’s corruption and bureaucracy, who will stand for something.

Caddell and his partners — a mix of Democrat and Republican numbers-crunchers — have started the "We Need Smith" campaign, modeled on the iconic Frank Capra movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." They challenge everyone running for federal office to sign a "Promise to America."

That pragmatic pledge presses candidates and incumbents (there’s still hope for some) to stop becoming lobbyists the moment they leave office (in the real world, no one loses his job one day and has a seven-figure job waiting for him the next), to pass budgets (come on, seriously, everyone has to work within a budget), to write every bill in plain English (none of the bureaucratic gibberish that no one understands) and to have it available online a week before signing.

Kreith Taylor, who is running in the 6th Congressional District north of here, signed on immediately. The Jefferson County native is as comfortable target-shooting as she is saying she would never vote for Nancy Pelosi.

She described reading Caddell’s data as a "Eureka!" moment: "People tell me all of the time that Washington is broken and they are tired of both parties."

Fourteen miles west of Bedford, in the tiny town of New Paris, cars appear to roll uphill and water flows the wrong way. "Gravity Hill" is a place where gravity defies reality and it is the perfect metaphor for how Washington behaves in contrast to the country it serves — in short, backward.

You can’t "fix" Gravity Hill; it’s a natural phenomenon. But you can fix Washington and get it going in the same direction as the rest of the country.

Seems a little promise such as Pat Caddell proposes would be a great way to start.

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter