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Election review

The primary elections in Pennsylvania demonstrated again that widespread calls for change aren't having much impact in Harrisburg.

The failed gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Anthony Hardy Williams did serve one useful purpose — it highlighted the need for campaign finance limits in Pennsylvania.

The state has no restrictions on the amount of money that individuals or political action committees can donate to a candidate for public office. It's a perennial embarrassment.

But this spring, state Sen. Williams (D., Phila.) took the disgraceful custom to new heights. He pulled in more than $3.3 million from a single group — Students First, a Wynnewood-based PAC consisting of a handful of wealthy businessmen who are promoting school choice.

Those donations from one PAC made up the bulk of Williams' campaign fund. They included a single donation of $1.6 million and represented the largest political contributions from a single source in state history.

The fact that Williams finished third is irrelevant — without his school-choice sugar daddies, the little-known legislator wouldn't have registered as a blip on the election radar.

Candidates should not be so beholden to a few big-money donors. It creates the perception that large donors can buy access, while the voices of average citizens get drowned out.

Williams wasn't the only candidate to take advantage of the state's relatively lawless campaign-finance system. Both party's nominees for governor, Democrat Dan Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett, received six-figure contributions from individual donors.

Last month, a state House committee controlled by Democrats unanimously approved donor limits of $5,000 per individual and $10,000 per PAC for candidates for statewide office. It's a needed step, but the prospects for the legislation in the Republican-led Senate are dim.

And don't look for leadership on this issue from Gov. Rendell, who seems downright confused. In the past, Rendell has vacuumed up all the large donations he could; then he proposed donor limits after he could no longer run for governor. But last week, Rendell called the mammoth donations to Williams "very appropriate."

Despite a groundswell of anti-incumbent sentiment nationwide, the election results in Pennsylvania were mostly kind to incumbents.

No U.S. House lawmaker from Pennsylvania lost a primary. The lone exception was the highly visible loss of Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) to Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County. In the 12th congressional district, formerly represented by the late John Murtha, his longtime Democratic aide Mark Critz won a special election.

Out of 203 state House seats up for election in the primaries, 183 incumbents were running. Only 20 incumbents had primary opponents, and only one incumbent lost — Rep. Karen Beyer (R., Northampton).

Even two well-known legislators under indictment — Rep. John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) and Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) — won their primaries.

In the state Senate, 22 incumbents are running for reelection this year. Only two had primary opponents, and both incumbents won.

That doesn't necessarily mean voters are happy with the incumbents. Most didn't have any challengers. Others only had token opposition. That's due in large measure to the way districts have been drawn to favor incumbents and limit competition.

Change may be coming on some fronts across the country, but it's slow to arrive in most corners of Pennsylvania.