The three Democratic Party candidates for Pennsylvania's 16th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives offered their views on a variety of issues during a forum Monday in Ford Memorial Chapel on the campus of Allegheny College.
Ron DiNicola, Robert Multari and Christian Rieger square off in the May 15 Democratic primary with the winner moving on to November's general election, where he will likely face Rep. Mike Kelly, a four-time incumbent and the only Republican candidate in the race. Kelly ran unopposed in 2016 after being re-elected in 2014 with more than 60 percent of the ballots cast.
The prospect of facing Kelly this fall loomed large over the forum as the candidates took turns disparaging what they called Kelly's refusal to make himself available to his constituents, his support for the recent tax reform bill they described as advantageous to Kelly and unfair to his middle class constituents and his complicity in what Rieger called “immoral” budgets and cuts to health care.
Early in the forum, all three candidates pledged to hold regular town hall-style meetings in person, meeting with their constituents face to face rather than relying on the over-the-phone tele-town halls that have become Kelly's standard practice in recent years.
“Our current incumbent does not meet with constituents face to face any more,” said Rieger, a resident of Cranberry Township whose law practice in south Pittsburgh specializes in debt relief, landlord-tenant and consumer protection matters. “In my judgment, if you're not willing to meet with those you mean to represent ... then you can't represent them very well.”
“You cannot be a leader if you do not listen," said DiNicola, a former Erie County attorney and chairman of Empower Erie, a nonprofit working to create community college options available in the northwest region of the state. "You can't represent anybody if you don't know how to state their case. The problem with Mr. Kelly, unfortunately, is I don't think he cares about your case.”
Multari, a Hermitage physician specializing in internal medicine and pain management, cited his experience as president of the American Academy of Internal Medicine and his eight years of service on the Council on Health Care Reform as evidence of his ability to overcome bureaucracy.
“I am certain I am the only candidate here who can beat Kelly in the fall,” Multari said at two different points.
But if Kelly provided the evening's most consistent punching bag, another Pennsylvania politician was never far from the thoughts of the candidates. Far from piling on fellow-Democrat Conor Lamb, however, the candidates took turns maneuvering to follow in his footsteps. Lamb's upset victory in the 18th District's special election in March provided a possible model to be followed for Democrats nationwide with hopes of taking back the House of Representatives from Republicans.
Like Lamb, each of the candidates distanced himself from the current Democratic leaders in the House, particularly minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
“I respect the contributions that have been made by the Democratic leadership in the past, but I think it's time for a change on both sides of the aisle,” DiNicola said.
Rieger and Multari similarly called for new party leaders, with Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, cited as a possible future speaker if the Democrats retake a majority in the House.
The candidates also followed the formula established by Lamb by focusing their attacks on their future opponent Kelly rather than President Donald Trump. Kelly took more of their criticism than Trump for the tax cut recently signed into law by the president.
While Trump received some of their criticism, the candidates were more positive about the president than might have been expected.
“I agree with Trump about jobs,” DiNicola said, “and I'm prepared to work with him.”
Rieger sympathized with Trump's idea of a “forgotten America,” though he was skeptical of Trump's commitment to helping those left behind.
“To the extent he is sincere,” he said, “I'm happy to work with him.”
Rieger proved the most willing to offer specific policy proposals that squarely oppose Trump's agenda thus far, including a return of the federal assault weapons ban, an increase in the number of tax brackets and a more progressive tax code as well as significant reform in the area of student loans — an issue he deals with daily in his practice and knows personally, having graduated from law school less than 10 years ago.
Multari at several points seemed to have borrowed quite heavily from the Trump playbook, calling for a return of steel, aluminum and railroad jobs to the area and a revival of health care as it existed before the policies insurance conglomerates came to dominate.
“We won't have to depend on getting steel from China,” he said at one point, adding later, “I may not be able to go down and drain the swamp, but I will go down and wrestle the alligators.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can watch
The Democratic candidate forum for Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional District will be shown on Armstrong cable channels 23 and 100 at 8 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Thursday, 8:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and a few more times after that leading up to the May 15 primary.