Jack London: A non-politician makes his move
10/04/2016 12:51PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Outsider: A person who does not belong to or is not accepted as part of a particular group or organization; a person that is not expected to win a race or competition.
Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary
When Jack London, the president and chief executive officer of the London Financial Group in West Chester, first announced his candidacy for the 19th District in the State Senate on Nov. 12, 2015 at the Avondale Fire Company, his speech had all of the commonspeak of the non-politician, who advertises himself as “the fresh change that's needed in (fill in the city).”
“Are you tired of government looking to you every time there is a problem?” London told the audience of 50 who came to hear him. “Do you feel that government service should be a service and not a career? Would you like to see someone go to Harrisburg and work on reforming the systems that are broken?”
With his hands squeezing the edges of a podium, London then launched into a verbal take-down of the antagonist who fueled London's motivation to get to that podium in the first place: current State Senator Andrew Dinniman.
“I understand the pain that small businesses go through every day – health care costs, red tape, taxes – these things are killing American small business every day,” he said. “In stark contrast, Politician Andy Dinniman has no experience in the private sector. Andy Dinniman has lived off the taxpayer his entire career. Let me repeat that, his entire career. Andy Dinniman’s lack of understanding of private business resonates in his lack of understanding in the economy, and how government affects private business.
“How can we expect someone who collects three taxpayer-funded pensions to work on reforming a woefully underfunded pension plan, to the tune of $50 million?” he added. “How can we expect someone who takes money from unions and special interests to privatize and modernize [the sale of liquor in the commonwealth], when the fact is that doing that would threaten the very unions who give him money?”
Whether or not London's speech sounded in the audience as the warmed-over rhetoric of the underdog – or whether it effectively served to puncture the hot-air balloon of politics as usual – it became the foundation of what has been a year-long, uphill climb to defeat Dinniman in an election that will be decided on Nov. 8.
Moreover, the race for the Senate seat, once thought by many to be a foregone conclusion, is now a valid and at times contentious conversation -- a battle of words fought by a well-liked incumbent and the outsider who has put his professional life as a financial analyst on hold and plunged into this race with the enthusiasm of a marathoner who summons up a newfound well of energy at the 20th mile.
For a political outsider, overcoming barriers in order to get to the Senate floor in Harrisburg can be insurmountable. Since upsetting then-County Commissioner Carol Aichele in a special election in the summer of 2006 -- following the death of Republican State Sen. Robert Thompson -- Dinniman has held the lock and key to the office for the last decade. With a quick smile and a high likability, he is known by many as Chester County's most ardent cheerleader, championing efforts to increase acess to education, economic security, job growth and conservation.
Recently, Dinniman was a driving force in passing Act 105 of 2014 (Senate Bill 75), which improves and better defines Pennsylvania’s human trafficking laws. In response to the growing epidemic of Lyme disease in the commonwealth, he spearheaded the passage of Act 83 in 2014, which established the Pennsylvania Health Department’s task force on Lyme and related tick-borne diseases.
During the past two years, Dinniman has served as the legislative lifeline to a citizen brigade in New Garden Township that opposes the desire of the Artesian Water Company to activate a well in the township, for the purpose of transporting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day to Delaware.
"When I first [announced my candidacy], a lot of people told me, 'Jack, we think you're a nice guy, but you're not going to make this happen,'" London said from the Avondale home he shares with his wife and daughter, who is a student at Avon Grove High School. "They said, 'Senator Dinniman has been a politician for 25 years. He's a juggernaut, and it's impossible.'
"I do not kid myself into believing that this will not be a Herculean effort, but I have to try. I would like to believe that I am a person who has completed some Herculean tasks."
If Central Casting were to look for the prototypical elected official, chances are that Jack London would not be called in for an audition. At 48, his presence still retains the strength and intimidation of his former life as a weightlifter. His head is shaved, and the answers to questions about his candidacy are linear, nearly clear of tangents. In short, it's the Straight Talk Express, and it's traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In the last year, London said that he has knocked on 16,000 doors. He is a constant presence at public events throughout the district. His marketing outreach -- ads that appear on Facebook and television and direct mail -- have served as both a gentle introduction and a fierce, bullet- point indictment of his opponent.
"I have never seen a candidate work harder," said Val DiGorgio, chairman of the Republican Committee of Chester County. "In a year of great political change, he's a non-politician working against a career politician, whom we have always said has support a mile wide and an inch deep."
London's role as the outsider has earned him the endorsement of several small business associations. PMA PAC, the affiliated political action committee of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association (PMA), recently endorsed London, calling him a "hard-charging candidate who is running to bring accountability and strong pro-growth leadership to Harrisburg."
“As a successful business owner, Jack understands the importance of economic competitiveness and how decisions by state government can help or hurt Pennsylvania’s ability to win business investment, jobs, and economic growth,” said PMA president David N. Taylor. “As exemplified by his earlier careers as a professional athlete and police officer, Jack has an intense personal drive and commitment to getting things done that will serve him well in the Senate. The people of Chester County can be certain that Jack London will be their champion, rather than a time-server or excuse-maker.”
Whether it is a by product of our current political climate or a bold strategic move, London has revealed the secret card that has become the key selling point in the campaigns of many outsiders who enter the political fray.
"It's easy to have salient points when you're telling the truth, when it's coming from your heart," he said. "I don't have the political answers. I am going to tell you what I think, and if I don't have the answers, I will tell you that, too. I think in this current climate, people want people to look them in the eye and tell them the truth. And that's all they want.”
Even his campaign platform is streamlined. His top priorities will be to ensure that "ALL people in the 19th Senate District are represented," and to "reform outdated and failing government programs and departments." He wants to eliminate the Keystone Exam as a requirement for graduation; and privatize liquor sales, and use the funding to help balance the state's budget.
"I'm not talking about giving my constituency the opportunity to buy four bottles of wine at a supermarket," he said. "That's not liquor privatization. That's an opportunity for the politicians to tell us that they did us a favor. The true problem with the state liquor system is the cost of the system. I want to push that money to the private sector, taking new, non-taxable revenue and putting it into the state's pension programs."
London also wants to reform the state's public pension system by shifting teacher pensions into a 401K-like plan.
“It's a spiral that has to be addressed, but when Senator Dinniman says that we have to address the problem, I see someone who caused the problem," he said. "He is walking around saying that I want to blow everyone's pension money, which is exactly what I am not wanting to do. I am looking to save the pensions of people, because if we continue down this road, the people who have been promised pensions are not going to get them.”
While he's channeling most of his campaign to plugging his agenda, London has also left plenty of room to paint Dinniman as a career politician who is collecting three taxpayer-paid salaries and government pensions, and as an accomplice in what many see as a tax-and-spend debacle -- spearheaded by a legislature that has voted for $5 billion in new taxes, $6 billion in new spending and $17 billion in new debt.
“I want people to have a clear picture of the leadership they have, and a clear picture of the leadership they could have," he said. "If you're a voter who is happy with a billion-dollar structural deficit, a $60 billion pension deficit, with a leader who has several taxpayer-funded pensions, I'm probably not your guy. But if you're going to look to the very people who created this problem to fix it, the very people who keep promising that they're going to fix it, that is like a form of insanity."
On June 20, London challenged Dinniman to a public debate, giving the senator 25 potential dates that coincided with his opponent's schedule. More than 100 days later, Dinniman has not accepted London's offer. Although the two will square off in a League of Women Voters'-sponsored debate on Oct. 23 at Borough Hall in West Chester, London fears that the question-and-answer style that fashions these debates will not allow him to bring up what he most wants to call his opponent on.
"I told people that [Dinniman] has three pensions, and his staff people called me a liar," London said. "Let's be clear about what he has: He's eligible for a pension from West Chester. He's eligible for a pension for being a state Senator, and he's eligible as a former County Commissioner. Technically, he has two pensions that he's eligible for, that come from three sources.
"As a citizen, that doesn't sound right to me, and I think people need to know that. If people are OK with that, then great, vote for him. If you think he deserves three pensions, and you don't care about a $60 billion pension deficit, and that they're going to raise your property taxes to fill it? Then vote for him."
The role of the underdog is familiar to London; he has lived it for most of his life.
As a student at the prestigious William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, he was the fish out of water, the kid from a blue-collar family who competed with students from privileged backgrounds. In order to pay his way through Temple University, he sold flowers from his father's flower shop on the streets of Philadelphia. No one expected him to upseat the national champion powerlifter John Rienstra at Temple, but he did, becoming a two-time national powerlifting champion and later, an All-American.
The role of the underdog is apparently working for him, according to recent polls sent by the Republican Committee of Chester County. DiGiorgio said that those who participated in the poll sent out in August said that London's name recognition has increased in the last year, and that they are in favor of making changes in Harrisburg.
"Not only has Jack risen in the polls, he's energized the Republican party in Chester County, to the point where we all feel we're courting a rock star," DiGiorgio said. "All of that comes from him knocking on doors, including those of Democrats who say that they're going to be voting for him."
When asked if he is confident that London will defeat Dinniman in the election, DiGiorgio answered, "Yes. I wouldn't be putting in $250,000 from the Republican Committee of Chester County to his campaign if I didn't think Jack London was going to win."
With a little more than one month to the November election, London said that if he wins, don't expect him to become a career politician. His goals are short-term, and will involve forming coalitions, developing bipartisan relationships and, in true outsider fashion, then leave politics aside.
“A year from now, I want to walk into [a local restaurant], and have some guy point me out to someone and say, 'You see that guy? That's Jack London. He's our Senator, and he's working hard for us. He's trying. He cares about us,'” London said. “I want to leave a legacy like that. I don't want to be a punchline. I don't want to be called a politician. I don't want to be another guy who is leaching off the system. I want to be called a leader, who is doing this for all of the right reasons.
“I want people to feel good that I'm in Harrisburg working for them, not for me.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.
Note: The Chester County Press will publish a profile of Sen. Andy Dinniman, and his candidacy for the 19th District in the State Senate, in its Oct. 12 edition.