Three candidates are vying for Pennsylvania’s new 16th Congressional District seat in Tuesday’s election. The candidates — Mike Kelly, a Republican; Ron DiNicola, a Democrat; and Ebert (Bill) Beeman, a Libertarian — were interviewed separately by The Meadville Tribune on issues facing Congress with common questions for all three candidates.
The new 16th District came about after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional district boundaries earlier this year after declaring the previous boundaries to be the result of unconstitutional gerrymandering. The new 16th District includes all of Crawford, Erie, Mercer and Lawrence counties and part of Butler County.
Kelly, of Butler, is seeking a fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He first won election to what is Pennsylvania’s current 3rd District in 2010. Kelly has been owner of Mike Kelly Automotive Group in Butler.
DiNicola, of Erie, is an attorney and activist. He won the Democratic Party’s nomination following a three-way primary contest in May. This is DiNicola’s third attempt at the region’s congressional seat. He lost in Democratic Party nomination in the 1994 primary and won the Democratic nomination in 1996 before losing in the general election to then-Republican incumbent Phil English.
Beeman, of Erie, is a retiree and former truck driver and General Electric employee. In 2012, Beeman went to federal prison after pleading guilty to using a false Social Security number. He was released in 2013. Though he has a felony conviction, Beeman is not barred from running for Congress.
Kelly has stressed the strength and growth of the economy during the past 21 months of the Trump administration. Kelly credits the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 put forth by Trump and its subsequent passage by Congress as the reason for the growth and expects more to come.
“The whole purpose was growth and get us back on track,” Kelly said. “If things change, it could completely disrupt the economic path we’re on right now.”
DiNicola said the tax cuts passed by Trump and the Republican-led Congress benefited the wealthiest people and corporations but offered little in the way of help for western Pennsylvania and predicted that before long, the current fiscal policy would further divide the country.
“I see a failed fiscal policy, one that’s going to drive us into a debt ditch,” DiNicola said. “At some point they’re going to wake up and say how are we going to deal with the deficit, and they’re going to look at Social Security, Medicare and the things that are actually helping to sustain the stability of our society and protect our seniors.”
Saying that Americans are “fed up” with their elected officials, DiNicola said, “We need to embark on a fundamentally new course in Congress.”
Beeman said, “People do want change” and a smaller government. Beeman said he feels the government can save money by “getting rid of jobs that are unconstitutional — the EPA (Department of Environmental Protection Agency), HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and (Department of) Commerce.”
United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement
The new U.S. Mexico Canada Trade Agreement is proposed to replace the current North American Free Trade Agreement between the three counties and dates from 1994. Among its provisions, the agreement requires at least 75 percent North American content for vehicles, opens Canada’s milk market to U.S. farmers, and increases intellectual property protection. The candidates split in their response.
Kelly calls the new agreement one of the promises President Trump kept.
“We’re in a completely different economy now,” Kelly said. “I think it was timely to take a look at it. We need to look where there are opportunities and where are we weak. I like the idea of updating.”
The decision to revisit the trade agreement was one of several areas where DiNicola found common ground with Trump.
“I like the idea that the president took another look at it,” DiNicola said. “I was never a fan of NAFTA. My opponent, on the other hand, has never seen a trade agreement he didn’t like.”
Beeman dismissed the agreement.
“It’s worse. It’s NAFTA on steroids,” Beeman said. “NAFTA should be abolished and we should get out the United Nations, too. You don’t need 2,000 pages on trade. You only need to say trade shall not be infringed.”
Tariffs and trade
The candidates differed on the Trump administration’s new tariffs on foreign steel and Chinese goods.
Kelly said markets — no matter what the product — change and evolve over time.
“We have to be able to adjust to go in a different direction, find new markets and keep what we have,” Kelly said.
Kelly admits the Chinese will retaliate with tariffs to hurt the U.S.
“Tariffs are always the last resort — President Trump said from day one, ‘I don’t care what the trade agreement is as long as it’s reciprocal.’ We need reciprocal trade agreements. We have ceded a lot of our market base.”
As with NAFTA, DiNicola said he could find common ground with Trump on the issue of trade with China.
“I agree with the president on cracking down on China because they’ve been ripping us off for years,” he said. “I support the tariff on steel, but I’m also concerned about a larger trade war.
“I think the impulse is right, the initiative is right to make China behave, and I support the president on that,” DiNicola added.
Beeman said he’s afraid the U.S. is headed into a trade war with the Chinese that will benefit no one.
“With tariffs, all it is is higher prices for the people here, which makes more money for the government,” Beeman said. “We should eliminate all tariffs.”
Kelly said immigration reform needs to be done with technology employed to help speed the process and lower the expense, but the nation can’t just let people in.
“We want to make sure we can vet people and that they are coming here for the right reasons,” Kelly said. “The government’s first responsibility is to protect the citizens. Having open borders, having sanctuary cities, abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) — that is a formula for disaster for the United States.
“Do we want people to come here? Absolutely. Do we need people to come here? Absolutely. How do we want them to come here? The right way. Got to make sure borders are secure.”
DiNicola, the son of an immigrant, made a similar point even as he called on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform and pointed to the benefits that immigrants have brought to Erie.
“We need to secure our borders — there’s no dispute about that,” he said. “Comprehensive immigration reform is something we should be able to find commonsense compromise on. We should be able to that — it’s not that complicated.”
While immigration reform should be the goal, DiNicola stressed that existing laws should be enforced — both those that place restrictions on immigration as well as those that provide for asylum when it is warranted.
Beeman feels troops stationed in the Middle East should be brought back to the U.S. to protect the borders.
“This is an invasion. It’s an act of war,” Beeman said of immigrant marches heading toward the U.S. from Central America. “We should leave those Muslims alone and protect our own borders.”
On health care, Kelly said the argument about what should be done has gotten away from the real driver of health care insurance costs — the cost of health care itself. Kelly believes there needs to be an overhaul to bring more competition back to the U.S. health care system.
“Competition drives up quality and makes prices more competitive,” Kelly said.
Costs also can be lowered through the promotion of wellness programs focusing on such things as nutrition and exercise, according to Kelly.
DiNicola faulted the polarized political system for failing to find common ground on health care.
“People do not fundamentally believe that Congress is working for them,” he said.
The effect of widespread gerrymandering, DiNicola said, is to create safe congressional seats and members of Congress who have no motivation to compromise and who often depend on large contributions from the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. As a result, “You don’t get any progress on health care” and other priorities, he added.
“Health care is something a sophisticated modern society should be able to solve for its citizenry,” DiNicola said. “We’re not doing that.”
Beeman said the health care system “should be left intact as it is and it can be funded by stopping all these wars.” Beeman claimed the U.S. is dropping a $1 million bomb every 12 minutes. “What are we getting in return, absolutely nothing, just hatred,” he said. “There are 500,000 homeless in the U.S. that we need to take care of.”
Kelly said funding for Social Security comes from the work force — as it’s wage-tax driven.
“We just make sure to have more money coming in than money going out,” Kelly said. “The way is a dynamic and robust economy; there’s no other way to do it.”
Kelly said there are almost 4 million more people working today than when Trump took office. “That’s a lot of people feeding (funding) into Social Security that weren’t there before.”
“Our wages (in western Pennsylvania) are still way below the national average,” DiNicola said, calling Trump’s tax cuts a “$2 trillion ‘juicing’” of the economy. The national deficit is already skyrocketing as a result, DiNicola said, and Republicans are likely to target programs like Social Security and Medicare in response.
Beeman said he believes current Social Security funding should be left the way it is but only pay the people who currently are receiving it.
Recent passage of comprehensive federal legislation to combat the nation’s opioid crisis drew praise from Kelly.
The legislation has two bills that were originally sponsored by Kelly — legislation to stop synthetic opioids from overseas and measures to protect senior citizens from addiction.
Kelly said the legislative package had wide bipartisan support due to the crisis.
“Everybody signed on,” Kelly said of the legislation. “Money flows into states and lets them use it the way they think to combat the issues that they have.”
“We need to make sure prescriptions aren’t unlimited,” Kelly said. “We need to get counseling to people and (make sure) that doctors are not overprescribing to people.”
DiNicola called the recent legislation “a step in the right direction.”
“This is obviously a very, very insidious addiction that affects all families,” DiNicola said. “We need to expand education. We need to continue to be vigilant about that. We need to make sure we have adequate treatment and we need to have enforcement.”
Beeman said the federal government should stay out of the matter altogether.
“Every drug should be legal,” Beeman said. “Every drug should be decriminalized. The states should do what they please, but the federal government should stay out of it.”
Town hall meetings
Kelly said he’s opted to go to electronic town hall meetings to get more people involved in interacting with him at meetings. Technology also makes it easier for people to attend the town hall meetings with him.
Kelly also stressed that since taking office nearly eight years ago, he’s had more than 1,000 face-to-face meetings with various constituents at his offices in Erie, Sharon, Butler, Washington, D.C., or other locations.
DiNicola said that listening to constituents at in-person town hall meetings would be a priority if he is elected.
“I make a pledge to the people: If they send me to Congress, I won’t disappear,” DiNicola said. “I will hold regular, traditional town hall meetings. I will hold regular office hours.
“I will be present in the community,” DiNicola added, saying that the position brings with it not just a responsibility to vote on matters before Congress but to act as a catalyst for empowering local communities.
Beeman said he’s in favor of holding face-to-face town hall meetings with constituents — at least three times a month.
“It’s to stay in touch with the people and let them know what you’re doing or not doing,” Beeman said.