Local residents packed the Carlisle Fire and Rescue building on Carlisle Springs Road last night for what proved to be a relatively low-key forum for regional political candidates.
In contrast to the adversarial narrative that the national campaign has created, event moderator Ken Matthews praised the interest of the local community in having a civil discussion.
“Not everyone has the vibe we have here,” Matthews said. “There are a lot of places around the world where this sort of event couldn’t happen.”
Although he is an avowed Trump supporter on his radio show, Matthews avoided any partisan inquiries and generally let candidates speak for themselves, as well as taking written questions submitted by audience members.
The forum was sponsored by the 9-12 Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for limited government. Candidates from 11 races were invited, although in many cases only one candidate was able to attend. For a few of the contests, however, candidates were able to directly engage each other in debate.
The liveliest of these saw incumbent Republican Congressman Lou Barletta square off against Democratic challenger Mike Marsicano in the race for the 11th U.S. Congressional District.
Both Barletta and Marsicano are former mayors of Hazleton – a fact that led them to debate Barletta’s controversial immigration-control policies, which created harsh punishments for landlords or businesses who knowingly rented or hired illegal migrants.
“You, as a mayor, cannot enforce federal law,” Marsicano said. “[Barletta] was told not to do this by his own solicitor per the third-class city code.”
Pennsylvania municipalities are not empowered to enforce federal mandates. But Barletta denied that he had overstepped his authority, since municipalities can issue and control occupation and business permits.
“We were creating permitting laws … we were punishing businesses and landlords who were knowingly harboring illegal aliens. We were not deporting immigrants,” Barletta said.
Both candidates also tried to widen their appeal to the other side of the political spectrum. Barletta stressed that he was one of only 27 members of the House’s bipartisan working group, and had broken with Republican leadership on issues such as flood relief.
Marsicano, likewise, described himself as a “pro-police candidate” who will “fight and die for the Second Amendment.”
Given the area’s strong Republican leaning, two races featured a Republican front-runner with a challenger running as an independent, and no Democrat present.
Republicans have nominated state Rep. Mike Regan to move up to the Pennsylvania Senate seat for the 31st District, the position vacated by retiring state Sen. Pat Vance. Independent Kenneth Gehosky is also seeking the position.
“There has been a barrier between the people and the Constitution,” said Gehosky, a teacher, holding up a copy of the document. That barrier, Gehosky said, is the two-party system.
“As I watched the deterioration of our civil society through the division of our political parties, I felt compelled to act,” Gehosky said.
Regan criticized his opponent as unrealistic, noting that legislators must caucus with either the Democrats or Republicans, even if they are independents, in order to set policy.
In the only strictly partisan exchange of the evening, Gehosky was questioned if he had ever been registered as a Democrat.
“Yes, I was,” he replied. “But so was Donald Trump.”
The two also discussed Pennsylvania’s pension crisis, with Regan championing moving new state employees to 401(k)-style plans instead of defined-benefit pensions. Gehosky criticized Republican leadership, however, for treating such a change as a true solution, given that the shortfall in benefit funding for current employees and those already retired is over $60 billion.
Both candidates said they would not support cutting benefits that had already been promised to existing employees and retirees.
Republican Dawn Keefer and independent Kate McGraw, who are vying for the 92nd District seat being vacated by Regan for his senatorial run, also faced off.
Republican incumbent Will Tallman debated Democratic challenger Denise Van Essen in the race for the 193rd District state House seat, and Republican incumbent Greg Rothman exchanged opinions with Democratic challenger James Massey for the 87th District.
Most of these exchanges centered on property taxes, and attempts by legislators to find other sources of revenue for state government that would allow them to ease the tax burden on homeowners.
“It’s difficult to take away the most reliable source of funding our schools have,” McGraw said. “I don’t’ believe we should replace property taxes with other regressive taxes like sales tax. … What I would like to see are other revenue streams.”
Keefer, however, said she believed property taxes “are the most regressive taxes we have,” and that sales and income tax are more desirable since they are “based on someone’s ability to pay.”