Off-Year Blues



Election Day may seem far off – more than nine months to be exact – but already, 2006 is promising to be a spicy year for Pennsylvania voters.

Some say it will get downright annoying in the Philadelphia area, with television viewers treated to attack ads for not only the gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket, but also the senatorial showdown between Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and his likely Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Robert Casey, as well as several high-profile congressional contests.

Among the federal legislative races already capturing national attention are two in this corner of the state: the 6th District rematch between Rep. Jim Gerlach, the GOP incumbent, and Lois Murphy, the likely Democratic contender who came within 6,000 votes of victory in 2004; and the 8th District re-election fight of freshman Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick and whoever emerges from the May 16 Democratic primary.

The race for Gerlach's district, a dragon-shaped arc of a blend of suburban and rural municipalities in Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties, has already turned ugly and, according to pollster G. Terry Madonna, is well on track to cost more than $5 million.

"It's in the top five of the country," said Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll and a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., speaking to the contest's competitiveness and expected price tag. "It's a very unusual, hybrid district that has become a candidate's nightmare."

Voters in the district's Montgomery County and Chester County environs have already been targeted by television ads excoriating Gerlach for alleged fiscal improprieties and robbing senior citizens to pay for corporate America's excesses.

The ad, paid for by a third-party political action group, attempts to link votes to reform Medicare to votes to cut taxes.

This comes on the heels of the Murphy campaign's highlighting of a $2 million reporting error on a federal financial disclosure form filed by the Gerlach campaign, and an accusation that the congressman profited from money tied to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pled guilty to buying votes in Congress with money extorted from Indian tribes with gambling interests.

"Jim Gerlach never took a dime from Jack Abramoff, nor has he taken any money from clients of Jack Abramoff. We're quite thrilled that he's going to jail," said Mark Campbell, political director of the Gerlach campaign.

"I think the voters are smart, and that they vote for the person as opposed to the party," he continued. "Even Ms. Murphy would have to agree that political corruption is not an issue dominated by Republicans or Democrats; unfortunately, there are some bad apples in both parties."

The Gerlach campaign classified the reporting discrepancy as a "clerical error," and restated its contributions in the final quarter of last year.

As of Dec. 31, the Murphy campaign had $625,000 cash on hand after raising $380,000; the Gerlach campaign had more than $1 million in cash after receipts of $275,000.

For her part, Murphy, an attorney by profession, said that corruption in Washington is "an enormous problem," and that Gerlach's constituents in the end will realize that he's beholden to a GOP leadership typified by disgraced Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, who stepped down after his indictment on electioneering violations.

"It's a problem people back home take very seriously. They want representatives that they can trust and take seriously," said Murphy. "An overarching theme is going to be independence, whether Gerlach is truly independent of the leadership. Is this Congress really addressing the needs of the people? Are they addressing health care, a looming crisis nationally?"

Campbell fired back that the National Journal ranked his boss as "one of the most moderate members of Congress," and that Gerlach caught flak from both sides of the aisle over the question of opening up the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling.

A third candidate, 27-year-old Democrat Mark Leibowitz, a Haverford developer, criticized both major parties for the kind of no-holds-barred partisanship in Washington that has made politics in suburban Philadelphia a bitter pill to swallow.

"I'm a business owner, so I certainly understand it's important to create jobs. At the same time, I believe the government should provide a social safety net," said Leibowitz, a member of Temple Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood with little experience in politics. "My campaign is about reaching out to people who are tired with both the extremists in the Republican Party and the extremists in the Democratic Party."

Observers generally discount the prospect of Leibowitz successfully winning the Democratic nomination.

In handicapping the race, Philadelphia-based political analyst Jeff Jubelirer, while cautioning that Nov. 7 was a long ways away in electoral terms, said that Gerlach has his work cut out for him.

"Lois Murphy is a very formidable candidate. She has some of President Bush's unpopularity going for her, and is using wisely any connection between Gerlach and [the GOP leadership] to her benefit," said Jubelirer. "She knows that Bush is not doing very well according to poll numbers in the district. It's going to be close, there's no doubt about it."

At the Gerlach campaign, Campbell said that the advantage should go to the Republican.

"We're sure that when voters take a look at Jim's entire record, while some of them might wish he were a Democrat, they'll vote for him because he's a good, honest and decent person," said Campbell, taking note of the 6th District's near 50/50 split in party registration. "John Kerry tried running the 'I hate George Bush' campaign, and it ultimately failed because Kerry never presented an agenda of what he'd do as president. That's exactly what Lois Murphy is doing: She's not saying anything either."

While Murphy and Gerlach duke it out over ethics reform in the Western suburbs, the fight for the 8th District, which spans Bucks County and portions of Northeast Philadelphia, is taking shape along similar contours.

More Links to Abramoff 
Following a report in the Doylestown Intelligencer accusing Fitzpatrick – a first-term Republican who served for 10 years as a Bucks County commissioner – of receiving more than $200,000 in contributions from political-action committees linked to Abramoff, lead Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy accused the GOP congressman of "jumping in with two feet into the cesspool of politics in Washington."

"I bring a fresh approach and an unblemished record," said Murphy, a veteran of the most recent Iraq war, who is styling himself as a Democrat strong on foreign policy. "I believe in transparency in government. I believe in true ethics reform."

Fitzpatrick denied any link to Abramoff, and pointed out that the political-action committees that contributed to his fund received their money before he even took office.

"I've never met Jack Abramoff," he said. "I wouldn't know him if he walked into my office.

"The people will be voting for the candidate with the best plan to deal with increasing health-care costs; the best plan to keep the economy on track; the best plan to keep us safe in our homes, communities, places of worship and places of work," he continued. "That's me."

Democrats Andrew Warren, a former executive with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and Fred Viskovich are also running for Fitzpatrick's seat.

In Lancaster, Madonna said that surveys indicating a higher level of Democratic identification over past election cycles pointed to a potential banner year for Democrats. And the fact that many of the voters in the 6th District and 8th District live in the suburbs – areas that voted for "Gore and Kerry, and Rendell in between" – seemed to indicate a tough fight for Republicans.

Still, said the analyst, "Who knows? We're nine months away. Voters in the general election tend to not pay attention until October."




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