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Waging War for the Minimum Wage

Statewide hike offers political lessons

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There's a smug saying you may have heard about Pennsylvania. As a smug Pennsylvanian, I may have uttered it myself.

"Pennsylvania," the old saw goes, "is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other — and Alabama in between."

It's catchy, I'll admit. But it turns out that on some issues, "Alabama" voters may be more liberal than the Pittsburgh "progressives" you meet at Kelly's Bar.

You might have missed it, but Gov. Ed Rendell recently signed a statewide hike in the minimum wage. By this time next year, the minimum wage will be $7.15 at companies employing 10 or more workers. (Companies with fewer than 10 employees will have an extra year to meet the new goal.) The governor's office estimates that more than 420,000 workers statewide, including more than 45,000 in Allegheny County, will see their paychecks increase as a result of the raise.

It's not surprising that Rendell signed the measure; what's surprising is that it got to his desk at all, given the Republican-controlled legislature. And it wouldn't have happened without grassroots support where you might expect it least — in a rural areas.

In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, we barely saw this coming. When Harrisburg politicians gave themselves a raise last year, the outcry was intense. But when it came to raises for anyone else, hardly anyone paid attention.

"We had five rallies in Harrisburg, each with hundreds of people," says John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a key backer of the minimum-wage campaign. "But we got no coverage in Philly, and minimal coverage in Pittsburgh. Maybe it's because the minimum wage affects people who aren't very important to the media."

And while unions strongly backed the minimum-wage hike, Republicans in the Senate prevented the bill from coming up for a vote.

Dodds realized he needed a force more powerful than organized labor or the press. And so he turned, naturally, to country radio.

Dodds and his allies began buying radio time in conservative districts, filling the airwaves with ads to the tune of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons" and The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Among the targets: David Brightbill, the Senate majority leader who voted himself a pay raise, and who last year asked, "Do you know anybody that is making minimum wage?"

Obviously, Brightbill's support for the legislative pay raise wasn't the only evidence he was out of touch. According to the labor-backed Keystone Research Center, voters in rural areas, where wages are lower, were more likely to benefit from a minimum-wage hike. The KRC estimates, for example, that nearly one out of five workers in Fayette County will benefit from the wage hike — more than three times the rate in Allegheny County.

The radio ads, wrote veteran Harrisburg reporter Pete DeCoursey in a Capitolwire piece, didn't intimidate Republican leaders. The ads did something much better: They got "poor folks whose factories and churches were being visited [during the primary season] to ask their politicians for help." Soon, Republicans told reporters, they were being lobbied at their favorite lunch counters. Turned out they did know people working for minimum wage after all. Not long afterward, the measure passed.

There are a couple lessons to be learned here. The first is that the old Republican gambit — using issues like gay marriage to distract voters from economic issues — is no longer working so well. Harrisburg Republicans couldn't even agree on a pointless gay-marriage ban this year, but they could rally around a wage hike.

Which brings us to the second lesson. If Republicans are willing to try being Democrats, maybe Democrats should give it a shot too.

Democrats have grown increasingly wary of economic issues, fearing that Republicans will tag them as too liberal. But traditionally Democratic causes like the minimum wage can appeal to "red state" voters — if Democrats don't give up on the cause, or on the voters. They can fight Republicans on their own turf … and on their own terms. As Rendell said during the signing ceremony, conservatives "love to talk about religious values and moral values. Is paying less than the federal poverty level moral?"

The key, says Dodds, is to "get out of the Philly/Pittsburgh liberal ghetto" and take the message to the rural, working poor.

"No one is speaking for them, and it's hard to reach a critical mass," he acknowledges. "But once you do, the opposition starts to crumple really fast."

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