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Election 2002: High Stakes in Pennsylvania

August 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: In small town America, nothing can draw the people out of their houses like a parade, and this time of year, there’s always a distinct political flavor to the festivities.

SPOKESMAN: Hey, how are you?

KWAME HOLMAN: With the November elections just two months away, some candidates already are sprinting toward the finish line and they can’t resist the chance to meet and greet potential voters who line up just waiting for something, or someone, to pass by.

SPOKESMAN: Howdy.

KWAME HOLMAN: And so last Saturday in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, there were plenty of politicians afoot at the 48th annual Schuylkill County volunteer firefighter’s parade. Pennsylvania attorney general Mike Fisher, the Republican candidate for governor, was there. So was Bob Allen, seeking an eighth term in the state legislature. And amid the 20 marching bands, 1,500 firefighters, and more than 270 trucks and equipment, there were Tim Holden and George Gekas, two candidates locked in one of the tightest congressional races in the country.

SPOKESMAN: Thank you for waving.

KWAME HOLMAN: Aside from the fact that Republicans currently hold a narrow 13-seat advantage in the House of Representatives, making every seat won or lost crucial, what’s drawing attention to this race is that the candidates, Gekas and Holden, both are incumbents.

SPOKESMAN: I’ll take a hug.

WOMAN: Good luck to you.

KWAME HOLMAN: For ten years, democrat Tim Holden has represented the state’s sixth congressional district. For 20 years, Republican George Gekas has represented the neighboring 17th. While it might not be evident by the crowds that lined the parade route on Saturday, Pennsylvania has been losing population for decades as its steel and coal mining industries shrank. As a result, the most recent census figures forced Pennsylvania to eliminate two congressional districts and redraw the others. Gekas still lives within the boundaries of the newly-redrawn 17th district, but now, so does Holden. Voters here are overwhelmingly conservative and identify with President Bush, but they’re worried about jobs and the economy. They’ll likely choose their Congressman with those concerns in mind.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: I’m relying on their recognition that President Bush, in his efforts, would be better helped if I were elected than if Tim were elected.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: I look at the issues as they come at me and make a judgment, and my current Republican constituents understand that. They know that I’m not, you know, from the left wing of the Democratic Party.

KWAME HOLMAN: The decision to place congressmen Gekas and Holden in the same congressional district was made by the Republican-controlled legislature here in Harrisburg. It set up a contest between two incumbents who hadn’t faced serious challenge before and who now must introduce themselves to new groups of voters.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: The Republicans controlled the… you know, the entire agenda here in Harrisburg. They have the state Senate, the state House, and, of course, the governor’s mansion. And all along the reports were that they were going to, you know, take that to full political advantage and get rid of as many Democrats as possible. And they sent a message that, you know, this is drawn for George and, you know, Holden won’t even run at this, and you start believing it. You get paranoia, you know, “Holden won’t run,” and this is a solid Republican district, and I’m used to running in Republican districts. My current congressional district is only 44 percent Democratic performing. This is a little worse. It’s 41 percent, but I’m a conservative Democrat. I fit in with the values of Central Pennsylvania.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Holden just told us that district was created to end Tim Holden’s career?

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: Indeed, I think that was the thinking of the Republican leaders in Harrisburg in the General Assembly. I maintain that they did not fully analyze the returns of Schuylkill County when they made that decision. They went on pure registration numbers, which do favor me if you just go Republican-Democrat registration figures. But Tim has been able to overcome some of that deficit in years that he’s been serving in Schuylkill County.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Tim Holden retained only 40 percent of his constituents when the new 17th congressional district was drawn. Most of them live in Schuylkill County in towns such as Pottsville. That’s where Holden, and hundreds who know him, ate crabs trucked up from Maryland last Friday night at a fundraiser for the local hospital.

SPOKESPERSON: Where are your crabs at?

SPOKESPERSON: Gwen has them. I was in charge of this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Holden served seven years as Schuylkill County sheriff before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1992. Even though the county is predominately Republican, Tim Holden is very popular here. State representative Bob Allen, a Republican himself, said George Gekas has work to do in Schuylkill County.

STATE REP. BOB ALLEN: Well, I think he has to address economic issues. Jobs are very important to this area. Our unemployment rate is 6.6 percent– higher than the national average. He’s going to have to show that he’s going to have some interest in the leadership of creating jobs. He’s also going to have to show that he has an interest in the agricultural industry. We have a lot of small dairy farms and potato farms in this area.

KWAME HOLMAN: George Gekas’ strength lies in Harrisburg, his home, and the rest of predominately Republican Dauphin County. He retained 60 percent of his constituents. Gekas is a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. But he’s also portrayed as having one of the worst voting records on protecting the environment. And so last week he toured an abandoned coal mine site and urged federal action to clean up this acid-contaminated discharge that flows into a nearby stream.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: This administration has been very tight with the dollars. We want to loosen up those at least are immediately required for situations like this.

KWAME HOLMAN: George Gekas and Tim Holden faced off on Monday in Harrisburg at a lunchtime forum sponsored by the Pennsylvania Press Club. Each made his best case for reelection.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: I’m a conservative democrat. The National Journal has recorded me as being one of the 15 of the most conservative democrats in congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tim Holden also stressed his support for the president.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: I was one of a handful of Democrats President Bush brought down to the white house into the cabinet room as we prepared to vote on the homeland security bill, and I told him then that I would vote for it, and I did. And I’m proud that I did.

KWAME HOLMAN: But George Gekas questioned Holden’s support for the president, citing the democrat’s opposition to giving Mr. Bush trade promotion authority.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: It’s not enough to vote “yes” on the resources for the president and then deny him the power to negotiate agreements that are sure to bolster the economy and help him be the kind of commander-in-chief that we want him to be.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gekas took credit for introducing bankruptcy reform legislation, and for instituting instant background checks on handgun sales.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: Those who hate it call it the Gekas amendment. Those who enjoy it call it the Gekas amendment. I say to you now it’s the Gekas amendment. (Laughter )

KWAME HOLMAN: And he said he tried to prevent any more government shutdowns during budget battles.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: My bill would have said at the end of the fiscal year if they haven’t reached accord on a new budget, then you would have an instant replay of last year’s budget until the appropriators can get together and do a final budget. That’s common sense.

KWAME HOLMAN: Holden, in turn, stressed how he has been able to deliver for Pennsylvania through his work on the agriculture committee…

REP. TIM HOLDEN: And we were able to create, for the first time, a safety net. We were able to guarantee that there would be an income for our dairy farmers.

KWAME HOLMAN: …And through his work on the Transportation Committee.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: And because I serve on that committee, I had $34 million at my discretion, and I worked closely with Penndot and other local elected officials not only to address safety hazards that needed to be looked after, but also to work on economic development.

KWAME HOLMAN: A new twist sure to impact the campaigns is the proposed sale of the Hershey Food Corporation. Hershey employs 6,000 workers in Central Pennsylvania, but the concerns extend far beyond simply the sale of the company. An entire community built up around Hershey over the last 108 years. It includes a popular amusement park, medical center, and a $5.5 billion charitable trust. During our visit to Hershey, the aroma of warm, sweet chocolate permeated the heavy air in neighborhoods blocks from the Hershey factory. The candidates were asked what they would do to protect the Hershey legacy in Central Pennsylvania.

REP. TIM HOLDEN: Milton and Catherine Hershey would have never in their mind envisioned selling that company and breaking that commitment to central Pennsylvania. So I have said to the workers at Hershey, I have said to the people of Hershey that if there is a sale that is proposed– and we are hearing leaks now about Nestle and Kraft– that I will ask the Justice Department to use every bit of power that they have and every bit of authority to look into any antitrust violations and hopefully we will be able to derail the sale.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican George Gekas promised to use his influence as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: I was secretly hoping that if a sale is going to go through– god forbid it should– but if it does, I was hoping it would be Nestlé’s that would be successful bidder. Why? Because Nestlé’s being a large food conglomerate now, if they appended to its normal size the additional package of Hershey Foods, then I think our chances of stopping it antitrust-wise would be better.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: The action youth group? From where?

SPOKESPERSON: Mahanoy City.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS: Is that right? I’m Congressman Gekas.

KWAME HOLMAN: George Gekas and Tim Holden will return to Washington next week as Congress embarks on a final month of work.

MAN: Rest assured we’re in your corner.

SPOKESMAN: Thanks a lot. We have to win Schuylkill County big.

KWAME HOLMAN: But both candidates will make the short trip home frequently to shore up their bases of support and step up the task of introducing themselves to new voters in Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th district.

SPOKESMAN: We talked about that before…

SPOKESMAN: We’re trying. Thank you.