League saying, 'reform or else!'

The commonly held image of the League of Women Voters — and please forgive us for any unintended ageism or sexism here — seems to have been that of a group of genteel elderly ladies, properly sipping tea while stuffing candidate questionnaires into envelopes and politely urging their neighbors to do their patriotic duty.

Granny in the old Warner Bros. "Tweety Bird" cartoons with, perhaps, a neatly crocheted flag pin on her cardigan, might have been a typical member. If that were ever accurate, it certainly isn't today.

Think Granny on steroids. Think hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation breaking down the doors, not of Prohibition-era speakeasies seeking temperance, but of smoke-filled rooms in the state capital, demanding political and governmental reform.

This is the new League of Women Voters, energized — as well it should be — by outrage over the General Assembly's infamous self-granted pay raise of '05 and other nefarious activities. Its latest mailing to a political figure is not a question about Social Security reform, but a lawsuit, and it was filed against no less a figure than Ralph J. Cappy, former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Cappy, according to the league's lawsuit, orchestrated the court's approval, after secret meetings with legislators, of the state's then-new slots-machine gambling law in exchange for the General Assembly's passage of the ignominious pay raise, which included a nice salary increase for the judicial branch, too.

"Preposterous," Cappy replied. But, acquiescing, perhaps, to the credibility and moral authority the league possesses, Cappy issued his statement immediately after news of the suit hit the streets.

Saloon keepers, after all, ignored Carrie Nation at their own risk.

"I do not understand why a respected organization such as the League of Women Voters would associate itself with this irresponsible lawsuit, especially since the charges consist of falsehoods, speculation and innuendo," Cappy said in his mass-circulated response.

But the league is sticking to its ax. Members aren't hallucinating — there was nothing strange in the sugar cubes they stirred into their tea — nor did a little birdie tell them about the alleged shady dealing. They heard about it, according to the 17-page document filed in federal court in Harrisburg, from an unnamed state senator. The league claims that the alleged gambling-approval-for-a-pay-raise deal violates its constitutional rights to due process inasmuch as the league was one of several groups that filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of the 2004 law that legalized slot machines in Pennsylvania.

If the charges contained in the league's lawsuit are true, state government in Harrisburg — the most corrupt in the United States, according to Tim Potts of the reform-advocacy group Democracy Rising Pennsylvania — is even more corrupt than we thought, and who would have thought that to be possible?

If those charges are, as Cappy in sists, false, the league just may be off its proverbial rocker.

But the pay raise — along with gerrymandered legislative districts; staff bonuses for what may have been political work done on state time; lip service to, but no real action on, true reform; the annual politically motivated budget battle — can do that to you.

Misplaced outrage or fact-based moral crusade? It will be up to the courts to decide. Thankfully and fortuitously, it will be the federal, not state appellate courts, that will make the final determination.

Carrie A. Nation said she was called to save America from a drunkard's fate. Maybe — just maybe — her modern-day counterparts in the League of Women Voters can reform Harrisburg.

Gentle ladies, sharpen your hatchets.