Interviews & Profiles

A Q&A with Rabbi Michael Pollack

Michael Pollack is arrested at the state Capitol

Michael Pollack is arrested at the state Capitol Justin Sweitzer

Energized by a march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in spring 2016, Rabbi Michael Pollack formed March on Harrisburg, a government reform advocacy group that has developed a reputation for staging nonviolent demonstrations aimed at rooting out corruption in state government. 

The group uses three major tactics to advocate for good government reforms: physical marches to raise awareness about their cause, lobbying elected leaders to earn their support, and if that fails, taking direct, nonviolent action to get attention.

At the heart of March on Harrisburg’s efforts is legislation that would ban elected leaders from accepting gifts – a practice currently permissible under state law. Pollack and March on Harrisburg activists have framed the gifts as legal bribery and argue the practice undermines trust in Pennsylvania’s elected leaders and democracy itself. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to form March on Harrisburg?

It really started in 2016 before the presidential election – in the spring of 2016. We were a group of people who were frustrated that our political system seemed incapable of responding to all the crises coming at us day-to-day. We just saw these fights happening, lasting for decades, and there's been no resolution, no progress, on things ranging from taking on climate change, to education funding, to dealing with opioid abuse, to progressive tax structures. We saw all these problems and a lot of us were working on these different fronts of struggle, and we just kept tracing it all back to the same set of people, the same greed, the same corruption – the money wall is what we call it. 

In these various fronts of struggle, we all banged our heads up against that money wall. And so we came together and decided to dismantle that money wall. We all had too many experiences where a group has pushed a bill really far and then a guy in a suit walks in the back room and whispers something to the city councilor’s ear and the bill’s dead – that’s it. So we really realized that we have to unite across all different issues and challenge the corruption that maintains the system. 

Was gift ban legislation always your primary focus? How did that come to be March on Harrisburg’s main priority?

We went with a gift ban because it's something that's very easy to understand. It's not campaign finance reform, which usually leads people to kind of fall asleep … But the gift ban, people get that. It's a gutshot kind of a concept. We also knew that it was unanimously popular amongst the public, and there was not going to be any need for an education campaign to convince people what this is, or why to support it or explain to them what it is. Everybody agrees lobbyists should not be bribing politicians. 

Zeroing in on the gift ban – in your eyes, why is that piece so crucial to restoring public trust in state government?

The gifts – it’s essential because it's the most basic step. If our legislature can't even outlaw the Super Bowl tickets and the day-to-day material bribery, there's really no hope that they're ever going to do anything about campaign contributions, or about independent expenditures, or about side jobs. There's many ways that influence is bought, so we started with a gift ban because it's the most basic – it's the lowest-hanging fruit.

Gift ban legislation has moved out of committee, but it still hasn't received a floor vote in either chamber of the General Assembly. What's stopping this measure from advancing? 

Here's what we know. You need six people to agree in order for it to get to the governor's desk. For every bill in Harrisburg, only six people really matter. Those people are the committee chairs in each chamber, the majority leaders in the chamber, the Speaker of the House and the Senate president. If they're all on board, it happens. If even one of them vetoes it, it doesn't happen. A committee chair can hold up a bill even if everybody else is in favor of it. So, right now, we have five of those six people who publicly say they're on board, and the sixth person, [Senate President Pro Tempore Jake] Corman says that if he were governor, he would sign it into law. So, the question is why not just do it now as Senate president? But he won't answer that question. 

You have developed a bit of a reputation for taking actions that sometimes have resulted in arrests. Do you think that does more to help your cause or hurt it?

Absolutely to help it. For the first two years or so of March on Harrisburg’s existence, we got a lot of flack from a lot of groups about our tactics … Direct action is able to move some people to action, but also to make promises that they break. But it does get people out of the way. It does free up space. It also has an impact on the people we don't go after. The direct actions that we pull are seen by everybody else in the Capitol.