Wednesday, December 26, 2007

US Congress hopefuls mostly unelected

Congress hopefuls mostly unelected

Less than a quarter in state have been voted into office.

By Josh Drobnyk | Call Washington Bureau

December 26, 2007

WASHINGTON | - Pennsylvania's 2008 congressional challengers share an unusual trait -- they're not state lawmakers.

In fact, few have any political experience at all. Among the state's 19 congressional districts, less than a quarter of more than 15 declared challengers have been elected to any office.

Traditionally, Pennsylvania's Capitol Hill candidates emerge from the state Legislature or another elected post. That started to change last year and the pace is quickening now.

Why? Congress -- which only five years ago was held in high standing among most voters -- is now experiencing its lowest approval rating in more than a dozen years. Combine that with voters' discontent over the Pennsylvania's 2005 pay-raise scandal and a lack of action in Harrisburg, some political observers say, and you have a recipe for congressional challengers that starts with a background removed from politics.

''It is really not a great time to roll out your resume of being elected to previous offices,'' said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College and director of the school's Institute of Public Opinion. ''That type of experience probably isn't a great selling point for a public disillusioned with government officials or institutions.''

In area districts, few challengers have declared their candidacies, but those who have would be political neophytes. Sam Bennett, a nonprofit executive who twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Allentown, is running against U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, as is retired contractor William Hall. And former state trooper Toni Gilhooley is challenging Rep. Tim Holden, D-17th District.

Another who is considering a run is pharmaceutical executive and Marine reservist Col. Tom Manion -- against Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-8th District.

The one local exception is Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who is weighing a run against Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-11th. The mayor has proven himself to be widely popular in Hazleton, winning re-election with nearly 90 percent of the vote earlier this year.

Before 2006, four of the past five Pennsylvanians elected as freshmen members of Congress came from the state's General Assembly, Dent, Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-13th, among them. The other, Mike Fitzpatrick, had been chairman of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners.

Last year changed that trend. None of the state's four newcomers to the U.S. House had political experience.

State Rep. Bob Freeman, a Democrat from the Lehigh Valley who has considered a run for Congress before, pointed to other reasons for the lack of state representatives and senators pursing careers in Congress in recent years. Not since 2004 has there been an open congressional seat.

''Without open seats [to run for], incumbent state house members are often reluctant to give up their seats,'' he said.

Plus, the legislature is short on experienced members after a quarter of the General Assembly turned over last year. And those like Freeman, previously back benchers, were suddenly positioned to take on leadership posts -- posts that many are not eager to give up for a congressional run anytime soon, he said.

''You now have folks like myself who have gained seniority,'' he said. ''So we are not, by and large, in a position to move on.''

Running without prior political experience presents at least one significant hurdle: fundraising.

Without connections to donors and little experience asking for money, campaigning for office for the first time takes a lot of catching up. For those challengers in Pennsylvania without deep pockets, it has proven a tough task so far this cycle.

Only two challengers raised more than $100,000 through Sept. 30. Chris Hackett, a wealthy entrepreneur challenging Democratic freshman Rep. Chris Carney, 10th District, raised $247,000 through the third quarter, $100,000 of which he gave himself. The other, lawyer Thomas Myers, had raised $107,000 in his quest to unseat Rep. Phil English, R-3rd.

The average incumbent in the state, meanwhile, had raised $555,000 through that period.

The prospect of needing to raise millions to make a serious run at an incumbent is often a turnoff for political veterans, who know what a challenge that can be, said Robert A. Gleason Jr., chairman of the state Republican committee.

''They know it is going to be a very tough go,'' Gleason said. ''The people who have never run for Congress, they don't know that.''

But, ultimately, he said nothing stands in the way of talent.

''Good candidates always have a chance,'' he said. ''The reason more incumbents are not knocked off in marginal districts is because we don't get top-flight candidates to run against them.''

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