Gene Stilp won an upset victory over Bill Vinsko in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The conventional wisdom holds that Gene doesn’t have a prayer against Republican incumbent, Lou Barletta, but conventional wisdom may not apply to Gene Stilp.
Gene will be running in the 11th Congressional district, newly configured to ensure Barletta’s reelection. The Republican power brokers who drew that map certainly anticipated that Barletta would be running against a conventional Democrat, but Gene is anything but a conventional Democrat.
Gene appeals to voters across party lines. He has established a solid reputation as a reformer bent on improving government, holding officeholder accountable for their actions and fearlessly exposing corruption. His activism in the wake of the 2005 pay raise scandal directly led to the ousting of then Senate Majority Leader, David Brightbill, by the voters. Brightbill, who helped engineer the pay raise, routinely took the generous per diems which are a sore point for many voters even though he lives only 26 miles from the Capitol. To make the point that Brightbill did not need a per diem to compensate him for travel to and from the Capitol, Gene one day walked from Brightbill’s house to the Capitol.
Everybody in the Dauphin/Cumberland end of the newly sprawling 11th is familiar with Gene’s big inflatable pink pig which shows up frequently on the Capitol steps and occasionally at other locations that serve to remind people of officeholder greed. His advocacy for reform has been consistent over many years, and his creativity and keen sense of the messages that will resonate with ordinary people have built him a following that crosses party lines. People feel that he understands and defends their interests.
Gene is also well-known in the Luzerne County part of the district. He grew up and went to college in Wilkes-Barre and still has many contacts as well as family ties in the area. Barletta is practically unknown in the Dauphin/Cumberland part of the 11th, and many people question his understanding of the politics, the culture or the needs of their communities.
If Lou Barletta begins to perceive Gene as presenting a real threat, he will be a nasty opponent who will have access to all the money he wants – Republicans want to keep that seat. Gene will be running an unconventional grassroots campaign on a shoestring – and a big pink pig. If you live in the 11th, expect to see Gene at your door sometime between now and November.