Rites and Wrongs | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rites and Wrongs

Cashing in during a tragedy

If you're a sane, well-adjusted person, you've already started to forget the name Terri Schiavo.



And if you're a sane, well-adjusted person -- as opposed to, say, a conservative fundamentalist Christian -- that's exactly what Sen. Rick Santorum is hoping you'll do. He's hoping that when he faces re-election 18 months from now, you've forgotten how he went on a grandstanding trip to Florida at the end of March, showing up to pray with Terri Schiavo's parents as their daughter passed away.


He's also hoping you don't find out what else he did on that trip.


The conventional wisdom is that Santorum's trip to Florida, and the role he played in turning a personal tragedy into a media circus, hurt him. An April 22 Quinnipiac University poll showed that while 14 percent of Pennsylvanians polled are more likely to vote for Santorum because of his role in the Schiavo matter, 34 percent say they are less likely to vote for him.


But Santorum had another reason for going to Florida, the same reason Slick Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks: because that's where the money is.


That's right: When he wasn't ostentatiously grieving with the Schiavo family, Slick Rick Santorum was raking in campaign contributions at fund-raisers -- which, unlike his prayers, were conducted away from the TV cameras. According to campaign-contribution trackers PoliticalMoneyLine, during his two-day visit, Santorum reaped a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds. Terri Schiavo died a day after Santorum left, but his visit at least managed to resuscitate his campaign. No doubt contributors were impressed by Santorum's pious show of concern for Schiavo's life.


The irony is that, while Santorum was down in Florida, he took pains to insist he wasn't engaging in mere politics. As a Post-Gazette account noted at the time, Santorum "was [originally] scheduled to take part in a Social Security forum in Tampa yesterday, but it was canceled in what his aides described as a gesture of respect for Schiavo's family."


That respect doesn't preclude money-grubbing, apparently. But maybe Terri would have wanted it this way.


Better yet, according to news reports, Santorum flew to Florida on a private jet owned by Wal-Mart. (His campaign claims to have reimbursed the company for the flight.) And among the larger Florida contributors were the nice folks at Outback Steakhouse, who have reason to be grateful to Santorum. When he proposed a minimum-wage increase earlier this year, not only was the hike half the size of a competing proposal by Democrats...but it also protected restaurants from state action to increase the wages of restaurant employees.


Santorum's bill also loosened up the rules for overtime, whose very concept his personal airline, Wal-Mart, has had a hard time embracing. Santorum, see, takes an Outback approach to labor policy: no overtime rules...no worker's rights.


Back in March, there was no shortage of TV cameras on hand to record Santorum's hand-wringing about Terri Schiavo. By comparison, Santorum's other activities in Florida have gotten much less attention locally. While his Florida fund-raising drew attention in Florida and Philadelphia in recent days, the story has barely been reported here in Pittsburgh. I could find only the briefest mention of Santorum's fund-raising efforts in the Post-Gazette and nothing in the Tribune-Review. I'm unaware of any TV coverage of the issue.


Santorum will be counting on such short attention spans in the months ahead. If previous elections are any guide, over the next year-and-a-half, Santorum will begin to tack toward the center. Fellow Republican Sen. Arlen Specter did much the same thing by acting more conservative in the months prior to his hard-fought 2004 primary campaign. Santorum is headed in the opposite direction -- toward the middle -- but for the same reason: to appeal to voters who hopefully weren't paying attention to what he's been up to until now.


Santorum is counting on hard-core Christians to remember his role in the Schiavo case, and on everyone else to forget it. He's counting on you to believe he supports the workers -- and to ignore the Wal-Mart jet that took him to the rally.


And he's talking about "values" while grabbing the cash. Jesus may have cast the moneylenders out of the temple, but these days, you can often find them setting up shop across the street. Which is yet another reason for Rick Santorum to get involved in "values issues": because that's where the money is.

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