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What's that smell? It's Harrisburg's political air | John Baer

Animosity between Pennsylvania's left and right is a front-and-center example of why Harrisburg has accomplished so little of value, especially when it comes to reform.

Pa. state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, left, and Rep. Chris Rabb highlight ideological animus rife in the Capitol.
Pa. state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, left, and Rep. Chris Rabb highlight ideological animus rife in the Capitol.Read moreFile Photo; DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Perhaps you've noticed strange things emanate from your state Capitol.

I mean apart from frequent whiffs of worthlessness, the occasional stench of mendacity.

Well, a clash last week twixt two lawmakers shows how noxious Harrisburg can be.

Following a House State Government Committee meeting where a bill creating a citizens' redistricting commission was gutted and replaced with a measure giving lawmakers greater redistricting power, Philly Democratic Rep. Chris Rabb went off on the committee chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler).

They aren't pals. Rabb calls Metcalfe "a bully." Metcalfe calls Rabb a "wackjob." And their post-meeting encounter wasn't cordial.

"He came at me with a profanity-laced tirade," Metcalfe tells me. "He was very disrespectful."

Profanity-laced as in what, I ask.

"I don't use the words he used," says Metcalfe.

Rabb explains: "I use colorful language. I don't apologize for profanity. What's profane is his policies, which are racist and hate-based."

So, you said?

"I called what he did in committee f—ing disgusting," says Rabb, "an abomination to the democratic process."

Basically, Metcalfe blew off a few years of grassroots and bipartisan legislative effort to get citizens rather than politicians deciding legislative and congressional districts. That effort, he says, "is dead to me."

White-hot issue. White-hot argument. But there's more.

During their tiff, Rabb says Metcalfe threatened him by saying, "We'd have a very different conversation on the street."

Rabb took this to imply violence. Metcalfe's a fierce gun-rights advocate who annually hosts pro-gun rallies and has been rumored to carry in the Capitol.

So, Rabb wrote to House officials seeking measures "to ensure my safety."

(If you're having déjà vu, forget it. This is unrelated to the recent case of one lawmaker securing a restraining order against another lawmaker also rumored to carry in the Capitol. Yippee ki-yay.)

Metcalfe's story?

He tells me, "It's just ludicrous. For him [Rabb] to be the one who's a perpetrator, then try to turn that into himself as a victim … he's fearful? Ridiculous."

Metcalfe has a concealed-carry permit but says he doesn't tote under the dome. He claims his reference to the street meant if the two were in a public place, Rabb wouldn't use such language.

Rabb notes, and others confirm, that they were in a public place, a hearing room packed with redistricting-reform supporters and media.

So, there's that.

The incident isn't the first drawing attention to Metcalfe and his committee.

Last year, Philly Democratic Rep. Brian Sims snapped as Metcalfe pushed a measure to stop state funding to Philadelphia or any place functioning as a "sanctuary city," claiming no "patriotic American" would oppose it.

Sims, son of two retired Army lieutenant colonels, says, "It was offensive. I'm intensely patriotic." He says he and Metcalfe clash on many issues and calls Metcalfe "a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot."

Metcalfe also made news in December when, during a committee meeting, he told his committee's ranking Democrat, Montco's Matt Bradford, to stop touching him.

"I'm a heterosexual," Metcalfe said to Bradford, "I don't like men, as you might … Stop touching me all the time."

Metcalfe tells me these episodes are a Democratic strategy "to provoke the chairman." He says Braford "touched me 38 times last year on video."

(Committee meetings are recorded. So, Metcalfe or someone must have reviewed meetings to get a touch count. Also, it would appear the "strategy" works.)

Metcalfe took to Twitter last Friday: labeled Rabb a "lying Philadelphia liberal Democrat;" Sims, a "lying homosexual;" and Bradford, "touchy-feely."

He also wrote, "I block all substantive Democratic legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation!"

Ah, yes, the Pennsylvania legislative way.

Much of this — the name-calling, the gun stuff, the hard partisanship, apparent obsessions — suggests the need for intervention and a couple civics lessons.

And if the legislature had leaders who cared about the institution, its image, its decorum and how it serves the public that pays for it, maybe that would happen.

As is, the atmosphere remains more than a tad toxic.