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Sunday April 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

This article was originally posted by Laura Vecsey on

His name does not appear on the ballot for the Dauphin County commissioners race, or anywhere else where he’s helped run campaigns, but Mike Musser is a key player in the real game of local politics: money.

That’s why, when upstarts seek to challenge the power structure that keeps a firm grasp on county government, the role Musser plays is what you see when you draw back the curtain.

Musser runs Community Network Resources, a lobbying firm. He conducts campaign fundraising through Better Government for Pennsylvania, although Musser said he doesn’t have time to devote to boots-on-the-ground campaign management like he did in the past.

“I help a lot of Democrats and Republicans,” said Musser, the former Steelton secretary-treasurer who is a lifelong friend of Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick III.

Hartwick is the Democrat who serves with Republicans Jeff Haste and Mike Pries. But the long-standing narrative about the commissioners is that party affiliation doesn’t matter. The three commissioners get along so well that county residents get the benefit of a well-oiled machine.

“I think with the voters, issues are important. The region has voted for Republicans and Democrats, so voters look at issues. If people do a good job, that’s what they want. They don’t want Republicans and Democrats up there fighting. They want folks to get along and still try to get things right,” Musser said.

Some, however, have questioned if the well-oiled machine is too well-oiled.

Musser is one of the center spokes with his role on the Dauphin County Gaming Advisory Committee, where he helps designate where the county’s share of gambling money goes, and serves on the county’s Department of Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.

“Mike Musser is the most important person in county politics that we don’t know anything about,” said Eric Papenfuse, a Democratic challenger for the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners.

Papenfuse’s campaign filed a grievance with the Dauphin County Democratic Committee about Musser’s role in Hartwick’s campaign, who is up for re-election. The DCDC rejected the complaint that questioned how the campaign of all three commissioners - one Democrat and two Republicans - could be run by the same person.

He’s been doing this for the last decade-plus. He’s the chief fundraiser, along with Fred Clark (of Clark Resources). He’s running all three commissioners' campaigns. Officially, he’s the campaign manager for Jeff Haste and Mike Pries. He’s the volunteer coordinator for George Hartwick.

He also owes $100,000 in taxes over three years. The federal tax lien filed in Dauphin County on Feb. 9 against Musser for $100,319 is broken down as follows: $5,518 for 2006; $50,516 in 2007 and $44,285 in 2008.

Musser said he is working on a payment plan to pay off the federal lien, stating that he did not have the proper quarterly taxes drawn from his income.

“I got hit with a pretty big tax bill and if I had the money, I would pay it off,” he said.

Papenfuse and others contend this kind of issue is not incidental to the way the county does business. In a court challenge earlier this year against Hartwick about his residency, Hartwick testified that he had not read the lease for an apartment he rented from Fred Clark.

"It's not just sloppy, it's worse than sloppy. It shows a sense of entitlement and contempt for the rules and a lack of attention to the basic financial details. This has ties to the way the county does business, the ties to the incinerator and the lack of a performance bond. They don't understand the details,'' Papenfuse said.

The county continues to battle Harrisburg over the massive debt associated with the Harrisburg incinerator, of which the county is the second guarantor of more than half the debt. There are huge political and financial stakes to be defended, especially as the city awaits a report from the state's Act 47 team about a plan to resolve the $288 million debt.

A large burden will be placed on the city, which county officials like Haste insist must sell assets, including the city parking garages and the incinerator. But the county's role in signing off as the second guarantor has not been keenly examined. Despite lawsuits against the city, Dauphin County did sign off on the 2003 and 2007 bonds and notes.

As Papenfuse and other critics have noted, this was an insular machine between Dauphin County and Harrisburg during Stephen R. Reed's 28 years as mayor. There's nothing illegal about it, but a lack of competition among local elected officials has robbed citizens of the kind of oversight that comes with diverse representation in elected office. Not that the few at the center of local politics see it this way.

"I don't believe this is machine politics,'' Musser said. "Look at how things work together. We've alway been able to work with whoever is elected from this region, whether it was Rick Santorum or Bob Casey, Arlen Specter or Pat Toomey. Tim Holden is a Democrat but he votes his conscience and it appeals to the region. People in this region like this mix. If there was such a machine, we wouldn't have these differences,'' Musser said.

Unless the differences amounted to nothing except making sure the same group keeps getting elected. And on that score, Mike Musser has been key.

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