Chris Hughes owns a vape shop, and like a lot of Pennsylvania shop owners, he’s going to have to close the doors to Fat Cat Vapor near Williamsport before October 1, the date the state will force every vapor business to do an inventory and pay a 40 percent tax on all onhand merchandise. He has no intention of giving the state even a nickel of unjust tax revenue, so he’s packing it in.
Jeff Wheeland, the state representative for the district where Fat Cat is located, has proposed a possible fix, but Chris can’t count on that right now. If the amendment doesn’t get anywhere, shop owners open on Oct. 1 will be on the hook for a lot of money. “If the Wheeland amendment advances and becomes law rapidly enough, I could and would reopen the shop.”
“But this tax really introduces total chaos into the market in PA,” he says. “It’s like flipping over a chess board, and scattering the pieces everywhere. There’s no telling what things will look like after.”
But thinking about his future, he’d been considering another idea. Why not run for the legislature? Why not cause some grief for the representative in his home district who had voted for the budget bill that included the vapor tax? It was too late already to collect signatures to file and get on the ballot, so he’d have to run as a write-in candidate. That’s not usually a formula for winning, but still…
Rep. Garth Everett, the incumbent, has no other opponent. In fact, he’s never had an opponent in any of his five elections, so the state party would be unlikely to consider any need to support him. The money would probably already be allocated elsewhere. In 2014, Everett won with hardly more than 3,000 votes. Chris Hughes knows a lot of people. A lot of people like him. His name is easy to remember and spell. And a small business owner being forced to close by an unjust tax — that’s a great story.
This might just be a winnable election.
A few weeks later, he has a campaign committee, a sharp website, and two Facebook pages. Famous political figures are talking about his campaign. But he needs money. “I love Facebook likes, but you can’t buy yard signs with them,” he said. “I’d really like to see vendors step up and be more proactive in participating in their own survival.”
“The district is very manageable as far as number of voters, and the geographics of the towns,” Hughes told me. “I’ve also lived here for 48 years and know lots of people. The one critical question is if I can raise enough money rapidly enough to do media buys, hire a professional campaign manager, and meet all the other expenses required for an effective campaign. Being on the brink of unemployment seriously limits my opportunity to self finance.”
He makes a strong case for why vapers and vendors should donate to his campaign. Look at it like this: Pennsylvania is the sixth largest state in the country. Legislators everywhere will watch how this tax controversy plays out. If some shops close, but others stick it out, and if there’s no noticeable political fallout, other states will likely copy what they see as a successful tax idea.
But imagine if a five-term incumbent legislator gets beaten — by a write-in candidate who owns a vape shop. That could send shock waves through state legislatures around the country that are considering vapor taxes.
“What I’m trying to accomplish here could be used as an object lesson to state legislators in every state if successful,” he says. “Considering the size and scope of the industry, the amount of money required for this project is miniscule, but the payoff would be huge.”
Chris Hughes estimates he only needs $50,000 to make a serious run. “The reality is if under five percent of vendors in the U.S. donated $100 each to this campaign, we’d have plenty of money to get this done.” (If there is money left over, Pennsylvania has specific requirements for how it must be disposed of. Chris himself doesn’t get any of it.)