Pa. State Senator John P. Blake spoke to ESU students inside the Senate Chambers at the University Center last Thursday. Blake is a second-term democratic state senator who represents the twenty-second district of Pa. He represents all of Lackawanna county, and parts of Monroe and Luzerne counties.
Blake has also served as ESU’s Legislative Fellow for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Dr. Kimberly Adams, from the Political Science Department, was the first to speak. Adams thanked ESU’s Political Science Department and the students of the Political Science Club for making the state senator’s visit possible.
Recently, the Political Science Club visited the Shirley Futch Plaza, an assisted living facility in East Stroudsburg. Club members talked to senior citizens about the upcoming 2016 elections and the political candidates.
Adams was followed by President Marcia Welsh, who offered some brief introductory remarks.
Political Science Club President and ESU senior Allison Simon had the honor of introducing Blake. Simon noted that Blake is the Democratic Chair of the Finance Committee and the Democratic Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Blake took the stage, mentioning that he never ran for elective office until he was fifty years old. Nevertheless, Blake said that the decision to run for office was momentous and life changing.
“The office has gravity that I don’t know if I can impact on you. No matter what [political] office it is, it is an unbelievable leap,” Blake said; “You have to be prepared for 24/7 scrutiny. You owe it to people to be transparent about everything that you are: character, judgment, intentions and aspirations.”
“You also have to be willing to do things that are difficult – like asking people for money,” Blake added.
“I am the CEO for two separate operations. I am the CEO of the state senate. But I have another operation. I run the Friends of Jim Blake Campaign Committee,” Blake continued; “The two are wired together in various interesting ways. But the legal obligations to your citizens should never intersect in any inappropriate way. Raising money has nothing to do with your judgment as senator. No one should put their campaign ahead of their office.”
“In five years, I have raised 1.5 million dollars. It’s not free to get your name in front of people, so you have to raise money. It is the most distasteful aspect of public life, but it is also necessary in a functioning democracy,” said Blake.
“But the two must never formally intersect with one another. The information from the campaign committee cannot be shared with the senate office. There is a very disciplined firewall between the two,” Blake explained; “My staff cannot be involved in anything political, and we cannot ask taxpayers to pay for our campaign committee. We have to be disciplined all the time.”
Blake was a political unknown when he won the Pa. state senate seat in 2010. Despite being heavily outspent by other candidates, he won 20.3 percent of the vote in a five-way democratic primary, before winning the general election.
“I cannot impress upon you the enormous privilege this is. It’s a sacrifice to campaign, and it takes a lot of energy,” said Blake; “When you win, there is nothing like it in the world. The euphoria to sit and witness the vote count is beyond my ability to describe to you.”
“I was sworn in January 2011. I walked onto the floor of the Senate pretty naive. I didn’t understand parliamentary procedure, ethics and the rules of the Senate,” Blake explained; “I didn’t quite understand then the sheer power of majority rules. It was 30-20 Republicans, and the majority controls when, what and how we vote. They call us into session and control the session.”
“Fast forward to 2014, and it is now 31-19 Republicans. There is a greater majority on the Republican side, and the minority is often defending and reacting,” said Blake; “The nine-month budget impasse was a direct reflection of divided government.”
“The federal government can borrow, but Pennsylvania is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget,” Blake continued; “We have 30 billion dollars, give-or-take. 10 billion of that goes to K-12 public education, but it takes 30 billion dollars to educate kids from K-12 every year. So the 10 billion that comes from the state should really be more.”
“There is another 15 billion that goes from the state to health and human services to care for our seniors and persons with disabilities and those in need of medical assistance,” Blake stated, “and another five billion goes to service the debt that we have incurred.”
“The budget was allowed to become law without the governor’s signature, and we got more money into schools. But the school districts have to get more,” Blake explained; “There are a lot of people who are disaffected from government, but politics is a noble profession. You have to have good political skills to be effective in government,” said Blake.
“You have to have a good sense of the self-interests of other people. Where you stand on the issues depends on where you sit,” said Blake.
Blake explains that he sits in the back to the left on the Senate floor: “From the back row of the Senate, I can see the whole floor. When the agriculture committee chairman gets up, I know that something is going on. You have to be mindful of all the moving parts.”
Despite what the media says about politicians, Blake said that they do get along.
“We get along more than you think. I have tremendous relationships across the aisle,” said Blake.
“The Founding Fathers had it right. When they first questioned whether democracy could operate, [James] Madison said that factions could not control things for any length of time. There will always be other forces to put it back in balance,” said Blake.
“Despite what cable news and shock jock radios tell you, the system works. It’s a remarkable country. People who don’t do their jobs won’t hold them for very long,” said Blake; “You can’t hide. You have to vote yea or nay, and those results are recorded. If anyone wants to know how I voted on an issue, they can find out immediately.”
Blake personally sponsored the “Innovate in Pennsylvania” tax credit program that became law. To date, the program has collected 85 million dollars in state revenue.
Blake preached the value of civic engagement to the students.
Last week, the use of medical cannabis was legalized in Pennsylvania. This happened not because of big business lobbyists, but because of a grassroots movement.
“The majority of the House was opposed, and the majority of the Senate was opposed. But families with children and military veterans came in saying that was the only way to stop seizures, and it wasn’t fair for the use of medical marijuana to label them as criminals in their own state,” said Blake.
“Being politically engaged makes a difference,” Blake stated.
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