Tim Potts ’71 And George Hicks ’13 Work To Fix An Ailing State Government
April 1, 2011
Six years ago, Tim Potts ’71 was mad as hell, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He’d spent 21 years working inside state government, largely unable to effect the improvements he saw necessary, and when he got outside he felt even more strongly that the government was not working for the benefit of its citizens but rather for the benefit of special and moneyed interests.
Potts saw that Pennsylvania’s government was broken. So he decided to fix it.
In 2004, he founded Democracy Rising PA, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization with the mission to turn “one of the most corrupt state governments” into “the best state government in America.” As Potts says, he has his work cut out for him.
During the last six years, Democracy Rising has grown to more than 7,000 members who work to pressure the state legislature to enact reform. According to Potts, as of January 2010, 72 percent of Pennsylvanians were in favor of holding a constitutional convention, which would allow the state to reform its government, and Potts guesses that number could now be as high as 80 percent.
“It’s an indication of how unresponsive the government is to the citizenry, that this kind of majority exists, and the legislature hasn’t done anything about it,” Potts says. The goal then is to enlist more Pennsylvanians—that’s where George Hicks ’13 comes in.
Hicks and Potts have much in common. Neither politico took a Dickinson course in political science (George is an Italian major, Tim was an English major). They also have unique networking approaches. While Potts, who resides in Carlisle, understands the subtleties of traditional networking, Hicks, a progressive Democrat from Philadelphia, employs the power of social media—spreading the message to the private college and university students of Pennsylvania.
“That’s one of the values of a liberal-arts education,” Potts says. “You don’t have to be a political-science major to understand the need for reforming your government and playing a role as an active citizen.”
And when Potts and Hicks get active, they get really active.
Hicks also contacted the state’s student newspapers. “We are starting with the [community leaders] to get the message to the grassroots—the students,” he says. In addition, Hicks worked with college and university political-science departments to host Potts as a speaker and is helping another student at the Pennsylvania State University–Main Campus to make Democracy Rising prominent there.
The last time Pennsylvania held a constitutional convention was in 1967. Yet it was only a partial convention, and the slate of delegates looked more like a Pennsylvania red-carpet show than an accurate representation of the state’s citizenry. The author James Michener was there, as were future governors Dick Thornburgh and Bob Casey Sr.
“Of the 163 delegates, only 11 were women, five were minorities, and 44 percent were lawyers,” says Potts. In a new delegation, Hicks would like to see “African Americans, gays, lesbians—the whole spectrum of ethnic, religious and sexual differences in Pennsylvania represented.”
While Democracy Rising cannot, as a 501(c)(3) organization, advocate for any particular issue, there are many that concern Pennsylvanians.
“We have the largest full-time legislature in America, the second-largest legislature of any kind, and the most expensive legislature in America,” says Potts. “So, naturally, a lot of people are talking about reducing the size of the legislature.” Citizens also have expressed interest in debating whether or not Pennsylvania should have a full-time legislature or whether representatives should have pay caps.
“After the 2000 census, we became the second-most gerrymandered state in the country,” continues Potts. “So some people want to talk about changing the way we draw the district boundaries.” Others are interested in getting rid of election of judges in favor of a merit-based selection system, like the one used on the federal level.
Hicks says he’d like to see legislators held accountable. “I think we have to have some kind of system where, if I’m a taxpayer paying you $67,000 per year, plus your staff, plus your per diem, plus costs for your legislation, your caucuses, your committees, then I have a right to know what I’m paying for. I’d like a report every year on how legislators benefited their community directly.”
And just because Democracy Rising doesn’t advocate for particular outcomes doesn’t mean the group doesn’t educate Pennsylvanians about the issues. “A language major comes in very handy, if you look at it from the view of communication,” Hicks says, referring to both his and Potts’ Dickinson degrees. “To me, a language major is someone who is well-versed in the art of communicating. My major has helped me both to craft political messages and determine the best way to spread that statement.”
“George’s generation has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to communicate the way they want to fashion government,” Potts asserts.
Hicks, with the help of many other college-age Pennsylvanians, may just help to build Democracy Rising’s vision of the best state government. In fact, he is so committed, that he hopes to stay in Carlisle after graduation to continue to spread his message and help guide political discourse and commerce in the borough.
“This town has a nice charm to it,” he says, “and in my eyes it is an undeveloped piece of land with great potential. I hope to eventually be able to develop the town with real estate and commercial chains, as well as bring out its many distinct neighborhoods and communities. I’d like to help the many different groups and communities to define themselves so that the residents and even the world might know who these people from Carlisle are and where this very special town might be going.”