NEWS ANALYSIS ‘Working from the center out’
In a major surprise that resulted in national headlines, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent (R Pa.15) announced late last week that he’s decided against seeking re-election next year. He vowed to continue “giving voice to the sensible center and working to solve problems for the American people through smart policy - the product of negotiation, cooperation and inevitably, compromise.”
A seven-term Congressman, Dent has dedicated 27 years of his life to public service.
A few weeks ago, Dent was among those who participated in roundtable discussion at PetFresh. He advocated a reduction in the 35 percent corporate income tax, and said that tax reform could free up the funds for infrastructure improvements needed by business. He also argued in support of “clearing the regulatory underbrush” that makes it so difficult for business to expand.
These are all traditional Republican principles.
But Dent has come under heavy fire for his criticism of President Donald Trump. Before the roundtable started, he admitted as much.
“The argument among Republicans used to be whether you’re pure enough,’” he observed. “Now it’s whether you support Trump.”
Dent fails that litmus test. He has charged that Trump is “destroying the GOP,” and is replacing Republican principles with “the three-headed monster of protectionism, isolationism and nativism.” In last year’s presidential race, Dent cast a write-in ballot for Evan McMullin after his preferred choice, Ohio Governor John Kasich, failed to capture the Republican bid.
According to Politico, Dent is the third centrist Republican to decide against seeking re-election next year. Washington State’s Dave Reichert and Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are also stepping down.
State Rep. Justin Simmons, who announced his own candidacy for Dent’s seat last week, brags that he scared Dent off. “Mission accomplished!” he crows.
Simmons’s entire career has been in the public sector. It includes breaking a pledge that he’d only serve three terms. Just last year, Simmons accepted campaign money and an endorsement from Dent, and even discussed replacing Trump in the ballot. Now he wants to “drain the swamp.”
Dent’s decision also follows a ticketed (not public) pro-Trump and anti-Dent rally at Allentown’s Jordan Park. NorCo GOP Chair Lee Snover, an avid Trump supporter, said, “I looked Charlie Dent in the eye and I saw the swamp.” She applauded Simmons, who also spoke at the rally.
For his part, Charlie Dent denies his announcement has anything to do with Simmons’ candidacy or the anti-Dent rally. He said he made his decision mid-summer and has been discussing it with family and close friends since 2013.
He told NPR he had no serious challenge from the right or left, and characterized the anti-Dent rally as a “buffoon bus,” “freak show” and “a bunch of people from out of town.”
If he had no serious threat, why did he announce his retirement so soon? Why did he even respond when Justin Simmons announcedhis candidacy?
The reason is that Dent has already picked his successor. He was slamming Simmons, not for his own benefit, but to help someone else. That someone is Ryan MacKenzie, a state pepresentative in South Whitehall. MacKenzie announced his candidacy on Friday, the day after Dent announced his retirement. Unlike Simmons, MacKenzie thanked Dent for his service.
There are also numerous other Republican possibilities. There’s Marty Nothstein, a popular Olympic cyclist serving as a Lehigh County Commissioner. There’s Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County Commissioner who is now active in the tea party. He was at NorCo Council last week urging them to endorse Kate’s Law, which increases the penalties on deported illegal immigrants who return and commit more crimes. There’s also State Senator Pat Browne, who would likely beat them all, if he were so inclined.
By forcing Dent to reveal his intentions now, Justin Simmons and GOP Chair Lee Snover have actually made it far more likely that Dent’s seat will go to a Democrat.
Democrats have largely avoided Charlie Dent in recent races, offering only token opposition. But a disputed Republican primary with weak candidates like Simmons and MacKenzie is likely to draw some top tier interest. Cook Political Report has already changed its rating of the district from “solid Republican” (R+4) to “lean Republican” (R+2).
John Morganelli is a conservative Democrat, one of the few who will accept invitations from the tea party and get standing ovations when he’s done. He is popular in the Lehigh Valley and has good name recognition in the district. He’s weighing his options.
Other top tier Democrats who live in the district? Lehigh County Judge James Anthony, a combat veteran. Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Don Cunningham. John Callahan, who ran for this seat once before. Alan Jennings, executive director at Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza, who stood up to indicted Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
There are also numerous second tier possibilities like Bethlehem City Council President Willie Reynolds and NorCo Controller Steve Barron.
They can succeed Dent, but will never replace him. He was a true bipartisan who listened carefully to all the arguments, then made his decision.
“I really believe this country does like us working from the center out,” Dent told NPR. “I truly believe that. And by the way, I just wanted to thank all the voters who supported me all these years.”