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Rumsfeld overrules Army, lets Pippy run

Thursday, March 06, 2003

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Overturning an Army ruling made earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last night said state Rep. John Pippy could remain a candidate for state Senate in Tuesday's special election.

State Rep. John Pippy with his daughter Katelyn, 9, on the morning last month when he left for active duty as a captain in the Army Reserve.

Rumsfeld's office sent a letter to the Army waiving a Defense Department directive that bars Reserve members from running for political office while on extended duty, said Mike Hershey, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

"The Defense Department confirmed this evening that a letter was issued providing a waiver," Hershey said.

Pippy, 32, of Moon, is a captain in the Army Reserve. He is the Republican nominee in the state's 37th Senatorial District election. Voters on Tuesday will choose between Pippy and Democrat Paul Gitnik, 42, of South Park, to replace Tim Murphy, who now is a congressman.

"Obviously, I think it's the right decision," said Pippy's wife, Kathy, who has been filling in for her husband on the campaign trail.

Santorum and Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, appealed to Rumsfeld's office yesterday after Army Deputy General Counsel Matt Reres ruled that Pippy could not be a candidate in Tuesday's election or serve as a state representative. He cited a department directive that prohibits those on active duty from being a candidate or holding office in most cases.

One of the exceptions listed in the directive allows the "secretary of the military department, or his designee," to permit an active duty member to be a candidate "when circumstances warrant."

The three senators cited that language in appealing to Rumsfeld's office.

Reres had said in his ruling that such an exception applied only in "limited situations," like when an active duty member was being discharged in sufficient time to campaign for and serve in office. He said he did not believe it was warranted in Pippy's case.

Reres' ruling reversed a Feb. 14 decision that had cleared the way for Pippy to continue his candidacy.

Gitnik could not be reached for comment last night.

The controversy over Pippy's status is expected to shift today to U.S. District Court, where a hearing will be held on a lawsuit filed Monday by three South Hills residents who are seeking to block Pippy from running. They claim he is barred because he's on active duty.

Mike Long, a Pippy campaign spokesman, said he expected Pippy to prevail in court.

"It's as close to a frivolous lawsuit as you will find," he said. "There is no authority in state or federal law for any judge to postpone an election."

Allison Hrestak, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Pippy's name would remain on the ballot pending the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

Murphy, a Republican who represented the 37th District before being elected to Congress, said he expects the controversy over Pippy's status to lead to legislation that will permit reservists to hold and run for public office.

"A convicted felon sitting in prison can run for public office but a person who is wearing the uniform of our military, questions are raised there. It is simply inappropriate," he said.

As the fighting continued over Pippy's eligibility, the candidate was getting an anthrax shot with the rest of his Army unit.

He is one of a handful of lawmakers across the country being called to serve in almost every branch of the military as their colleagues meet in legislative sessions.

Florida state Rep. Carey Baker received activation orders for the National Guard in late December. Vermont Rep. Doran Metzger told colleagues in January he would miss nearly the entire legislative session while serving with a Vermont National Guard air ambulance company.

Ohio state Rep. John Boccieri missed several weeks of the legislative session this year while flying a C-130 cargo plane for the Air Force near the Iraqi border. New York Assemblyman Dan Hooker received orders this week to report to the Marine Corps.

At least a dozen other states have legislators who are in the Reserve and could be called up.

Most states have laws that prohibit active-duty military personnel from participating in legislative activities, according to Heather Morton of the National Conference of State Legislatures. The rationale is that the military is part of the executive branch and legislative service would be a conflict of interest.

But reservists are another matter.

While state legislatures across the country have said occasional deployments are not a problem, some are now pushing for laws that would allow temporary appointees to vote in place of legislators called to duty.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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