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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Politics West Elizabeth Style

March 25, 2010

There are times when I look back on the first town council meeting I covered as a newly hired ‘beat reporter’ for the McKeesport Daily News.

I was fresh out of college, and full of gung-ho enthusiasm, and my editor assigned me to report on the regular council meeting of West Elizabeth.

It was a typically hot and humid August evening in western Pennsylvania.

These monthly meetings were generally routine, and this one was to be no different, maybe consisting of a few votes on borough ordinances, and the airing of citizen complaints.

I soon realized that this would not be the case, instead, it was my first lesson that politicians can sometimes get pretty worked up over the issues.  As legendary former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, once said, "Politics ain’t bean-bag."

In West Elizabeth, the town was overwhelmingly Democrat, and as such, every member of council, and the mayor, were registered Democrats. Yet coalitions and factions existed within the council, and not everyone got along.

During a discussion about street maintenance, there were harsh words exchanged between the mayor and a member of council, and then, without warning, a fistfight broke out between the two men.

The fight was real, and it went on for several minutes. No one was breaking it up, and I was taking notes feverishly. This could be a major news story, perhaps page one, I thought. I couldn’t wait to get home to call my editor, and tell him what had happened.

When I reached my editor, much to my surprise, he didn't he see it as a big news story.

Unbeknownst to me, these local politicians had been arguing for years, and not only did the fight not warrant a page one story, it had happened before.

Still, I wrote my story, and went into great detail about the fight. By the time my editor reviewed it, and made his changes, it was watered down to a point where it was hard to tell  if there had been a fight that evening.

The lesson from this experience remains today. Political infighting is not always news. It has existed, in one form or another, for a long time, on all levels of government.

In a democratic Republic, as we are, people elect their representatives, and delegate authority to them. Political factions will exist, although hopefully, civility keeps things from getting out of hand as it did in West Elizabeth years ago.

The country saw political infighting last week over health care reform, and before that, there was a great deal of nastiness over the invasion of Iraq.

More often than not, the infighting is between congressional Democrats and Republicans, but it has spued out among regular voters, who are taking their politics very seriously, too.

Some citizens have threatened members of Congress for the way they voted on health care. Let’s hope the nastiness doesn’t rival the altercation that hot August night, years ago, at West Elizabeth.

Or, was it just a precursor of political behavior, yet to come.