In PA, Gene Stilp Refused Donations Over $2,500, Turned to Social Media to Win the 11th District Primary
In the Citizens United States of America, there is growing fear that no man or woman will ever again be elected without shelling out big money to corporate and political interests. But in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 11th Congressional district, Gene Stilp, a lifelong political activist with an impressive resume, is running on the promise of campaign finance reform while refusing to accept any individual donation over $2,500.
Stilp is taking on incumbent Tea Party freshman Lou Barletta. It is a true substance vs. money race, pitting a man of the people against a former Mayor (of Hazelton) who won the 2010 election on a firm anti-immigration platform. Its outcome will be fodder for those who support the notion of winning elections without dark money.
Stilp was a long shot in the Democratic Primary but earned a surprise victory using the power of the post-millennial wild card: social media.
Harrisburg’s Fox 43 did a short piece on Stilp’s Social Media management and how it earned him the nomination after his primary victory:
“I think the social media kept track of us as we went across the district, and I think it was very helpful for the younger generation to know where we were and what we stood for,” says Stilp.
His social media manager says it was important for people to know where Stilp was, his message, and how they could help. Giving people a sense of ownership in the election.
“I think social media was helpful for a good percentage of the win,” says Stilp
Who is Gene Stilp?
Part Thomas Jefferson and part Johnny Appleseed, Gene Stilp is more of a local legend than a career politician. He is a man who, after graduating from George Mason University Juris Doctorate, turned down big money to spend his life fighting the good fight. He became a master of props using them to creatively draw people to hear him speak on behalf of the disenfranchised.
In 1986, to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, Stilp built his own replica of the monument and placed it in the Susquehanna River at night. Originally meant to stand for eight weeks, it quickly became popular among local citizens and a more permanent version was created. Standing 25 feet tall and weighing 4 tons, the replica statue and the mystery behind it was featured in the first re-installment of CBS’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman.”
Throughout Pennsylvania, Stilp is known for his giant inflatable pig, known affectionately as “Pignelope,” which he brought to the steps of the State Capitol building to protest the controversial State Assembly pay raise in 2005. This successful action earned him the title of “Citizen of the Year” from the Philadelphia Inquirer. However, what is interesting about Stilp, or “Gene” as he is known throughout Central PA, is that he not only lead the protest but he filed the initial complaint that led to the “Bonusgate” hearings.
In 2009, after PPL Electric Utility raised their rates, Stilp took his case to the people, walking across 20 Pennsylvania counties with a giant prop electric plug on his back, telling the people he encountered to “Pull the plug on PPL’s 30% rate increase.”
Some of Stilp’s props currently reside in the Smithsonian, but they aren’t his own claim to fame among Pennsylvanians. He worked for 10 years writing policy as a Legislative Aide in the State House of Representatives. He has also been a dedicated volunteer fireman and EMT. After the September 11th attacks, Stilp volunteered to help clean up Ground Zero. He also designed the hero flag used in the Flight 93 commemorations.
Now, Stilp wants to go to Washington. But he knows “he’s going to need a much bigger pig” (his words). The gerrymandering of the 11th District has left incumbent Lou Barletta vulnerable as the district now stretches north into Stilp’s home turf where immigration is seen as a distraction to the real problems facing the working class.
Who is Lou Barletta?
Lou Barletta has served one term as part of the the least popular Congress in history. While Stilp has built much of his campaign around campaign finance reform, Barletta has taken a beating from the press in the wake of the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act. In his one term as Congressman, Barletta has voted in favor of the interests of his own portfolio more often than the interests of his constituents.
His chief accomplishments include sponsoring a bill, HR 743, asking the USPS to issue a commemorative stamp honoring America’s Coal Miners.
But Barletta’s FEC disclosure report reads like a who’s who of dark money. Since 2008, he has accepted donations from the following groups:
Associated Builders and Contractors, AT&T, Michelle Bachmann’s congressional campaign, Capital One, Comcast, The Freedom Project, Honeywell, Darrell Issa, Koch Industries (from which he has received $17,000), Lockheed Martin, Prosperity PAC, The Boeing Company, Home Depot, and Union Pacific among countless others.
He has voted to increase offshore drilling despite its environmental effects. He has voted to extend the Patriot Act. He also voted for the 2013 Defense Appropriation Bill although it will make drastic budget cuts to the Tobyhanna Army Depot, a major employer in the 11th district itself. He later called the vote an “error” saying he had inaccurate information based on an accounting mistake. Many observers, including Stilp, wonder if the Congressman is too busy appeasing his donors to notice what he is voting on:
“He has to be on top of the situation and he was not,” Stilp said. “I will not only fight to keep them, I will fight to enhance them – to add jobs.”
Can Social Media be the Game Changer?
In a close race with two very different candidates, social media may be the pivotal piece in enabling voters to learn about the unknown Stilp and his working class message. In the new 11th district, registered voters are 44% GOP, 43% DEM and 12% IND. Can Stilp’s bipartisan message defeat Barletta’s big money backers?
While fundraising remains a concern, Stilp appears to gain support every time a new group discovers what he stands for. He has called for nine debates before the November election, a request unlikely to be granted by Barletta. Just as the GOP is using Pennsylvania as a petri dish for voter suppression, the right of voters to know their prospective representatives’ views is being muted as well. Stilp commented on this in his announcement.
“The people of the 11th District should have the ability to see the candidates who are vying to represent them and make decisions on the vital issues of the day in their home county. There are clear differences between me and Mr. Barletta and the voters should have a chance to see them in person, not in 30 second commercials.”
To find out more about how Stilp’s camp plans on winning without big money, I recently interviewed Wayne Lesperance, the social media manager for Stilp’s congressional campaign.
5 Questions with Wayne Lesperance
Chaz Bolte (CB): There is a saying in campaigning that yard signs do not equal votes. Do Facebook likes and Twitter followers equate to votes?
Wayne Lesperance (WL): When you put up a yard sign you have no control over who passes it. With both Twitter and Facebook you can target an audience. Facebook in particular allows you to start a conversation with people you would never be able to reach with traditional media.
With Facebook, every user has a community of neighbors, friends, and families that follow them. Every community or family has a man or woman who is really influential on how people around them see politics. When that specific person hits the button and says “I Like Gene Stilp” it becomes much more effective than a yard sign, it almost becomes an endorsement. People you would have never thought to reach see that their political friend likes Gene Stilp and that maybe Gene Stilp is someone they should look at.
Also yard signs are often placed randomly, Facebook likes are not random, they are anything but. Someone decided to hit that button and they did it for a reason.
CB: So does Facebook work better for campaigns than Twitter?
WL: Twitter is more for those who love the news. It’s the modern “hot off the presses”, but unlike Facebook you can’t reach communities. To get news or links to stories out to the public quickly it is great. However, there are things that can be done with Facebook that you could never do with Twitter, such as show a candidate from a different perspective.
For example, in traditional print or in a news story on a website you can show Gene Stilp dressed to fit the part surrounded by local firefighters he visited shaking hands, looking the part of the perfect candidate. Those are great pictures. You need them.
With Facebook, though, you can show a picture from the same event, except of the candidate exhausted outside after a long day with his tie partially undone leaning against a wall. You can show that your candidate is human and images like that go far with voters. Especially in an interactive community like Facebook people want to see that the person they are considering electing to represent them is a regular guy who gets tired at the end of a long day.
CB: In your specific candidate’s case, with there being strict guidelines against accepting corporate or PAC money, how important is fundraising via social media?
WL: Fundraising via social media is a catalyst but definitely not the answer. With Twitter you can continually put it out there. Links to the donation page on the website and that is seen as more acceptable. On Facebook, it can only be done occasionally, when really needed, as in “we really need this right now and we need you to help us out.” But Facebook is more for discussions and interactivity; you would rub people the wrong way if you constantly asked them for money and you would lose it’s pluses.
From time to time fundraising through social media is great as a call to action. Overusing it takes away from its main purpose though.
CB: What has been accomplished in this campaign so far because of social media that could not have been imagined 10 years ago, or even 4 years ago?
WL: I’ve been doing campaign communications for 15 years. In the beginning, when we were doing this, the pie in the sky dream was to track the progress of a candidate as they moved. Almost report from the field. We never expected it to get where it is today where you can follow a candidate’s every move.
For a candidate like Gene who drives around in a large pig this makes it easier for him to connect with voters. 10 years ago you really had to be in the right place at the right time. If you were driving from town to town you would have to call the local media and give them an estimate of when this giant pig was coming into town and hoped they reported it early, that people showed, and you were perfectly on time. Now you can show pictures out of the bus and say, “we are 5 miles outside of Harrisburg! See you soon!” as you travel.
I think the biggest difference, especially in the past 4 years, is that everyone now has smart phones. Social media really exploded due to the fact that smart phones allows you to use it wherever you are. The world is much more instantaneous. Live tweets and facebook updates as you go along the campaign trail wasn’t really a possibility 4 years ago because not everyone had a smart phone.
CB: What is the main advice you would have for other candidates looking to improve their social media campaigns?
WL: There is a real difference between Facebook and Twitter. Some people in social media want to lump them together and they really need to know the difference.
Like I said earlier Twitter is ‘hot off the press”, it’s to share news and talk to the media. The ability to break a story with the push of a button is amazing.
Facebook is really where you get a forum to talk to voters and show what kind of person your candidate is. It is very important for a candidate like Gene who is an interesting person. It allows him to come alive more than Twitter.
If you want to have an effective social media campaign you have to use Facebook and Twitter separately and correctly.
For more information on Gene Stilp’s Congressional run or to follow his social media outlets, visit the following websites: