Erie At Large: January 3, 2018
By Jim Wertz

In the wake of the 2016 presidential elections, Democrats, in particular, focused their attention toward the 2018 midterm elections. Their hope: to make 2018 a change year on par with the three most recent midterm elections.

In 2006, Democrats gained 31 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. Four years later, Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and took back the six Senatorial seats lost in 2006; and in 2014, Republicans added 13 more seats in House and nine more seats in the Senate.

These swings are largely seen as electoral backlash toward the party which holds, and the President who resides in, the White House. Historically, since World War II, the party in power in the executive branch loses 25 seats, on average, in the House of Representatives as a result of Congressional midterm elections, according to analysis by Vox Media. In fact, the president’s party has lost Congressional seats in 16 of the last 18 midterm elections.

Pennsylvania Democrats would like to see this trend continue in 2018 as they search for a candidate that is both wonkish and charismatic enough to take on Republican Representative Mike Kelly, who was first elected to Congress in the change wave in 2010 unseating then Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper.

Chris Rieger hopes to be that candidate. He’s a 33-year old lawyer from south Butler County hoping he can convince voters that he can preserve what’s left of the Democratic agenda in Washington to the benefit of the rather homogenous and sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which includes western Erie County, as well as parts of Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Lawrence, and Mercer counties….


Will the 3rd Still Be the 3rd?
November 20, 2017

Shortly after last November’s election, I received a call from a friend who had run for state house in Allegheny County. He asked me to be a speaker for the non-partisan group Fair Districts PA, an organization that is still attempting to reform how our congressional and legislative districts are drawn. I enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity, and did a few speaking engagements in Butler and Lawrence Counties before I decided to run for Congress.
Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing electoral districts to benefit one particular party or group, remains one of the most serious ailments of our democracy, and our own Commonwealth has been infected with the disease for quite some time, much more so than most other states. Pennsylvania is consistently ranked as one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. It has its own share of egregious district boundaries, and our own Third District here in Western and Northwestern Pennsylvania is no exception. Prior to the 2010-2011 redistricting, Pennsylvania’s 3rd District lumped in all of Erie County and stretched into the northern areas of Butler County. It was typically represented by centrist Republicans in the mold of Tom Ridge and Phil English, and the district even turned blue when Kathy Dahlkemper pulled an upset of English in 2008.
But after the 2011 redistricting became finalized (and after litigation surrounding the map was resolved in 2013), the district became fragmented and distorted. The lines moved further south and included the rest of Butler County. It stretched eastward and included all of Armstrong County and the southernmost areas of Clarion County. But most notable, reliably blue Erie County became chopped in half, splitting the Erie County vote between the newly drawn 3rd and 5th districts.
This happened all over our state, and the results are obvious: notwithstanding a voter registration advantage of nearly one million for Democrats in Pennsylvania, and obtaining a majority of the votes cast for all congressional candidates, the Republican Party enjoys a staggering 13 to 5 advantage in its U.S. House seats for Pennsylvania. This in a state where voters still often split their ticket for statewide office, making Pennsylvania a true swing state.
Now, a glimmer of hope exists for those who wish to restore choice in democracy back to the voters. A lawsuit recently filed in state Commonwealth Court is seeking to overturn the 2011 scribble that is our congressional maps, and have them redrawn to better reflect the communities and voting patterns of our state. Just a couple weeks ago, the state Supreme Court ordered the lawsuit to proceed, and the Court will be trying the case on December 11. It has to submit its findings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by the end of the year.
How the Court will rule, and whether the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will take it on appeal, is anyone’s guess. But if the maps are ordered to be redrawn, it could have serious ramifications on the 2018 races, including our own. Here is a possible map that could (emphasis on COULD) reflect what might happen for the midterms next year (scroll down to the middle of the page). Notice how on the hypothetical map that the rest of Erie County rejoins the district, and all of Lawrence County (including Ellwood City) is included. Additionally, south Butler County (Cranberry, Mars, Seven Fields, etc.) joins the 12th District in order to lump in similar communities (the affluent suburbs of Butler County and Northern Allegheny County, for instance).
Again, this is all speculation. For now. But if the Courts order that the maps need to be redrawn, that could go a long way toward restoring the voices of thousands across the state and our district. There is a saying about gerrymandering: “Voters should choose their elected representatives, not the other way around.”
Stay tuned.

Getting Money Out of Politics: One Tragic Example
October 20, 2017

One of the 3 primary pieces of our platform that I haven’t discussed as much as (but certainly no less important) is the need to reform our campaign finance system. That is, the need not just to overrule the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, but to remove private financing from our elections altogether.

Just one painful example of how our elections system has failed the American people (and in some cases, cost lives) was broken earlier this week by the Washington Post (see full story here). The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” highlighted how Congress, under intense lobbying from the drug and pharmaceutical industry, severely weakened the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to curb the spread of suspicious drug shipments to over-prescribing doctors and the black market. This has further fed a tragic opioid epidemic that has spread through the nation, including communities in Butler, Mercer, Erie counties, and all throughout the 3rd District.

By the time of the law’s passage in April 2016, the opioid scourge had claimed 200,000 lives, “more than 3 times the number of U.S. Military deaths in the Vietnam War.”

Between 2014 and 2016, the drug industry had contributed over $102 million lobbying Congress to pass the bill. During this time, Representative Mike Kelly received $149,000 in contributions from the industry. In the last quarter, he received $10,000 from Express Scripts, Inc. and Eli Lilly.

September 28, 2017

In politics, there is often a danger of interpreting short term victories as long-term, permanent shifts in policy. The most recent example came at the end of September, as the United States Senate’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with an immoral setup of block grants, Medicaid cuts, and stripping away of protections for those with pre-existing conditions came up empty yet again thanks to a few Republican senators (not to mention every single Democratic senator who held the line).
The event was framed, however, as a “last gasp” attempt at replacing former President Obama’s signature domestic legislation, as the time during this budget season to avoid the filibuster rules of the Senate had come and gone. This misses the point that the next budget battle can allow Congressional Republicans to recharge the batteries, and revive their attempts at ripping away health insurance for twenty or more million Americans.
This similar thinking arose for Democrats when the Affordable Care Act was passed in the early spring of 2010. It was (and still is) a landmark, but flawed, piece of legislation that politically was thought to put the issue of health care on the backburner for years and years. And that would certainly have been the case, but the Republicans’ illogical and immoral push for the better part of a decade to repeal the law has ironically brought the issue of health care as a right back to center stage.
Now that these attempts have come up empty, support for universal coverage in America is at an all-time high. Those who suggest we should “improve” the Affordable Care Act, but stop short of proposing some sort of expanded Medicare arrangement, miss the political danger in doing so. If Obamacare was marginally improved with, for instance, expanded subsidies for the private exchanges and other half measures, the issue of health care then becomes politically weak for years, as Congress will have much less of an incentive to work toward real reform. The system is made better, of course, but it would fail to address the issues of still having over twenty million Americans without coverage, onerous premiums and high deductibles for working families, and the continued stranglehold insurance and pharmaceutical companies have on our health and democracy.
Medicare has a seventy-five percent approval rating with the American people. In an age where Americans have difficulty agreeing what day of the week it is, the 52-year-old program for our seniors remains one of our country’s greatest and most popular domestic achievements. Expanding it to every American citizen is morally the right thing to do, but now the timing is on the American people’s side as well.

September 8, 2017

Among the old and worn carpet, pale yellow paint, and stacks upon stacks of files lining the walls of Just Harvest’s South Side location, you’ll find some of the most devoted, upbeat, and driven public servants in western Pennsylvania. I say “public servants” rather than “politicians,” because these volunteers are of course not elected officials. Not part of any state or federal bureaucracy. They are professionals, retirees, and college students.  And they indeed serve the public in the most basic and fundamental sense of that often overused phrase.

Just Harvest is one of a few dozen or so locations in Western Pennsylvania that works with the United Way to provide free tax preparation to low income and elderly citizens from every January until April 15.  Volunteers must become certified by the Internal Revenue Service either at a “Basic” (wage income) or “Advanced” (self-employed) level, and have to take hours of coursework every fall in order to do so.

When I first volunteered in the program a few years ago, it was daunting at first. As a practicing bankruptcy attorney, I had some experience in tax law (you don’t have to be a lawyer to participate in the program, of course), but the hustle and bustle among the cubicles of my site was a far cry from the quiet, steady environment of my law office down on the other end of Carson Street.

But a larger reason for the hectic atmosphere is the stakes involved. These are working men and women sitting down with you to get their taxes done.  Many of them single parents, struggling to pay rent and provide food for their children. And the money they receive from taking advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the country’s largest anti-poverty program, goes to three or four months of rent. Or pays for nearly a year’s worth of childcare. Or goes to increasing tuition and book expenses for a newly admitted student at Butler County Community College. Other times, it’s a retiree whose only source of income is Social Security, who needs to apply for a property tax rebate for the year. No matter the case, these people are depending on you to deliver a service. And it’s a service that helps
people live their lives.

My passion for public service probably began with my father. For thirty years he taught English literature at Altoona Area High School, and ran a children’s theater program at Penn State Altoona during the summer.  His commitment to his students over the years, coupled with my mother’s work ethic and resiliency (she has worked in sales at a jewelry store for nearly 25 years), helped create a feeling in me that individuals have a moral and civic obligation to make the world around them better, however possible, if they have the means to do so. I tried keeping that thought buried in my head when I went through law school at Duquesne University, and then into private practice.  I hadn’t initially thought bankruptcy and consumer protection law would appeal to me.  Employment discrimination or perhaps labor law seemed a more appropriate avenue (my father had exited the public school system in rather acrimonious fashion, and his experiences had inspired me to try my hand in that field).  But my first clerking job (which eventually became my first, and to this day only, legal job at the same firm) introduced me to issues of income inequality, loss of job, child support payments, and most importantly, medical debt.  Family after family rolling through my office left in near financial ruin, through no fault of their own, drove me to do the best possible good for them, to help put them back on their feet. And often times, I also had to play the role of “encourager,” to let people know that this whole process was “hitting the reset button,” as I often say, so that they could finally right their ship and get on with their lives.

At some point (I still don’t know the precise day), I decided I wanted to keep doing the same things I already was doing, but simply on a larger scale.  This ultimately led me into the hustle and bustle of Just Harvest’s location near Station Square.  And it now leads me to try and lend a helping hand in an even larger forum, the United States Congress.  The principles are the same – lifting families up, encouraging individuals always to look toward a brighter day, helping people – only now you’re working with a clientele of not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands. Congress has taken a beating in public opinion over the years, and rightfully so, for its actions (or inaction) on any number of issues. But every once in awhile, a funny thing happens in the halls of the Capitol Building: democracy works. Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, equal pay, revitalization of the American auto industry, the Affordable Care Act.  Regardless of the state of our nation’s capital right now, that is a resume of which to be proud. And true public servants have a natural desire to add to it.  As Americans, complacency is not in our vocabulary. We always strive not just to do better, but to do good. That is why I am running.


Lawrence County Action holds monthly meeting
September 1, 2017

Lawrence County Action held its monthly meeting Aug. 28 at the New Castle Public Library.

The program included information on committee person training, getting out the vote, fair districts and the judges tour. The group also heard from Chris Rieger, who will be challenging Mike Kelly in the Pennsylvania 3rd District race as well as Robert Lyles, who is a candidate for the New Castle Area School District Board of Directors.

Kathy Rentz opened the meeting by welcoming new faces in the crowd of 30 plus in attendance. She gave an overview of the committee person training attended by some members, and the group discussed various ways to contact voters. She stressed that there wasn’t much time to get this done before the November election. Sandra Moore talked about the letters she sent out to her precinct and the responses she received. Dick Craig suggested knocking on doors in neighborhoods. He said knowing our message and listening to the responses and concerns was vitally important. He also talked about getting palm cards and how we could use them. Linda Morrison distributed voter registration cards for members to carry with them to pass out whenever able to do so.

The upcoming Western PA Judicial Candidates Tour was announced. This is an opportunity to hear from the eight democratic candidates on the ballot in November for the courts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It will be held on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 9 a.m. at The Confluence in downtown New Castle. The event is free and open to the public.

Kathy then introduced Rieger. “We are running a positive, progressive, economic message in the district, stressing issues that are important to working Americans in areas like ours – rural and suburban,” Rieger said. “And I would say we as a party have to get back to those roots, because we do have a resume that we can be proud of such as SS, labor relations, Medicare, civil and voting rights, the Peace Corps, and the Paris Climate Accord.”

Robert Lyles spoke of being born and raised in New Castle and that his children attend the city schools. He is running because he wants to insure that his children, as well as all children attending the NCASD, receive the education and mentoring he did. “I will be fiscally responsible with your tax dollars and work to ensure that every child has the resources to reach their God-given potential,” Lyles said.

The meeting closed with information from Betsy Demarest about Fair Districts PA and the bills currently in the legislature pertaining to gerrymandering. Presentations are planned for Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. at the New Castle Public Library and Sept. 26 at the Ellwood City Library at 6 p.m. The community is invited to these bipartisan events to learn how gerrymandering affects our elections and how we can change this unfair process.