When Hayfield Township native Matt Knoedler stepped outside his new office Thursday morning to take a phone call, he was met by a bright sunny day in Washington.
The view from the plaza alongside the Longworth House Office Building wasn’t bad either.
“As I’m talking to you right now I’m facing the Capitol building,” Knoedler said, a hint of wonder in his voice. “I never envisioned myself being here, honestly. It’s just such a humbling experience to come from a dirt road in Crawford County, growing up in the country.”
The dirt road north of Saegertown where Knoedler grew up helped lead him to the nation’s capital a few years ago and now has taken him to the office of Rep. Mike Kelly, whose 16th District includes all of Crawford County.
After four years as a reporter for Erie News Now and three more as Washington bureau chief and correspondent for parent company Lilly Broadcasting, Knoedler started his current position last month. He’s not only the first person from Crawford County but also the first Pennsylvanian to hold the press secretary job under Kelly, a sixth-term Republican who was first elected in 2010.
Knoedler’s experience covering D.C. in general and Kelly in particular helped him land the job, but his northwest Pennsylvania background was a major factor as well, according to Tim Butler, Kelly’s chief of staff.
“Matt has been an outstanding addition to the team,” Butler said in a phone interview last week. “Our goal is always to bring the 16th District perspective to D.C. and not the reverse of that. Speaking the 16th District is not a second language for him, it’s a first language.”
As Knoedler was acquiring his knowledge of the district, he was also acquiring a love of journalism that took him first to the staff of The Pitchfork, the Cambridge Springs Junior-Senior High School newspaper, and WXCS, the low-powered radio station that broadcasts Cambridge sports. After he graduated high school in 2010, it took him to Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in communications and minored in political science.
But even when he moved to the D.C. area in 2018, it never took him too far from home.
“I knew some people who couldn’t wait to get out of Cambridge Springs,” Knoedler said, “but I’ve felt I had one foot in Crawford County and one foot in D.C. the past couple of years.”
Much of the draw has to do with family. His parents, Beth and Doug Knoedler, still live off that same dirt road, and his sister and grandparents are nearby. Family members will no longer be able to watch him on television several evenings each week, but they’re excited about his move from one side of the news to the other.
“As a child Matt was always writing about something and he had a deep fascination with news media,” Beth Knoedler said. “His love for that and politics I think have always been in his blood. As a parent, I have watched him grow with everything he has accomplished.”
The nature of the growth that his latest move would entail was something Knoedler considered before committing to it. Not only is he the first Crawford County resident to serve as Kelly’s press secretary, he’s also the first former reporter in the position. During the past decade, Knoedler had gone from a college student trying to catch Kelly for a comment during Clarion’s Autumn Leaf Festival Parade to reporting from the White House on Election Day.
Over the course of a few days last November, Knoedler recalled, he shot more than 50 live segments for Lilly Broadcasting channels from Michigan to Puerto Rico as the election results and Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the presidential race became clearer.
Two months later, he reported from the west-facing front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, which quickly evolved into what he described as “a dangerous day.” After rushing to the scene, Knoedler encountered a sea of people unlike anything he had encountered before. Not everyone present was involved in the violence that took place and a surprising number were happy to talk to the media about their support for President Trump, he said.
Still, he added, “The part of me that loves politics and democracy in this country — it breaks your heart to watch that in real time.”
In the months that followed, Knoedler realized he had been able to accomplish his major goals in news, having spent time as an anchor, a D.C. correspondent and even covering some sports along the way. As he started to consider what might come next, the opportunity in Kelly’s office came up.
Taking the job would involve what some might see as a significant change of teams — from reporting the news objectively to spinning the news — but Knoedler didn’t see it that way.
Instead, working for Kelly represented a chance to serve his community using the skills he had developed in journalism. Rather than spinning the news, he said, he thinks of himself as reporting the news for the congressman. In the end, it was an easy decision.
“The decision to pursue this great opportunity with Congressman Kelly and serve my hometown and the local area from the other side of the camera was one I couldn’t pass up,” Knoedler said. “I’d always considered working on politics someday, so this was the right move at the right time.”
Knoedler’s skills as a journalist made for a smooth transition into the office, according to Butler. As a native of the 16th District who had already covered Kelly for several years, Knoedler already felt like a member of the family, Butler added, and he even knew the office was a reliable source of Eat’n Park smiley cookies.
“Whenever he was here,” Butler said, “we made sure we sent him back with enough.”
The transition from tracking down stories to responding to reporters and working to get the word out about the congressman’s efforts has been smooth, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had it’s challenges. By the end of his first week at the new job, Knoedler was responding to press inquiries regarding an ethics investigation into stock purchases by Kelly’s wife, Victoria.
A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics concluded there is “substantial reason to believe” that Victoria Kelly used nonpublic information obtained through her husband’s position. After purchasing between $15,001 and $50,000 worth of stock in Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. at $4.70 per share, according to the report, she later sold her shares at $18.11.
Knoedler said that he was familiar with the story from having followed it as a reporter and didn’t feel any added pressure facing inquiries from the other side. While he largely agrees with Kelly’s political positions, particularly the congressman’s efforts to protect “the taxpayers’ dollars” and to fight for the 16th District, he doesn’t see himself as especially partisan. The neutral tone he practiced as a journalist may come in handy in his efforts as he hopes to “tone down the rhetoric” that has come to characterize national politics.
That rhetoric was conspicuous a week ago when every House Democrat voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar and strip him of two committee assignments for tweeting an animated video that had been manipulated to portray him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Biden. Kelly joined all but three Republican members of the House in opposing the move.
It’s not the sort of issue Knoedler hears concerns about when he returns home. Instead, such controversies tend to obscure the “kitchen table issues” that are more important to both 16th District voters and to Kelly himself, according to Knoedler, who said he hopes to be proactive in letting people know what issues the office is working on and why.
“I think people are craving a little more civility,” he said. “Let’s show people the issues we’re really focusing on rather than just being consumed with the national rhetoric that I think people are burned out on at this point.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.