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Friedenberg, Keller Face Off in 12th District Special Election

by on May 16, 2019 1:57 PM

Tuesday is primary election day in Pennsylvania, but in the 12th Congressional District, all registered voters will be able to cast ballots for their next representative in the U.S. House.

Democrat Marc Friedenberg and Republican Fred Keller are running to replace former Rep. Tom Marino, the Lycoming County Republican who stepped down in January, two months after being elected to his fifth term.

In Centre County, the 12th District includes State College, Ferguson Township, Harris Township, College Township, part of Halfmoon Township and the Penns Valley Area. It also includes portions of Bradford, Clinton, Juniata, Lycoming, Mifflin, Northumberland, Perry, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union, and Wyoming counties.

Friedenberg, a Ferguson Township resident, is seeking election in the 12th district for the second time after challenging Marino in November's general election. He is a professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degree. Prior to returning to the university seven years ago, he received his law degree from Columbia and worked for law firms taking on Wall Street banks for their role in the 2008 financial crisis.

"There’s so much work that we need to do here in Centre County and across the whole congressional district, which is about a quarter of the state," Friedenberg said in a recent interview. "We need to make sure we’re delivering high-paying, family-sustaining jobs, and to do that we’re going to need to invest in infrastructure. We’re going to need to make sure everyone has access to quality affordable health care, that we fund our public school systems, and make college more affordable. I think this is a time that calls for ordinary people, non-politicians, to step up and contribute in a meaningful way. This is the way I’ve chosen and I’m glad to have an opportunity to continue the work that I started last year."

Keller, of Middle Creek Township in Snyder County, has been state representative for the 85th State House District since 2011 and previously served as Middle Creek Township auditor. He worked for 25 years at Conestoga Wood Specialties, starting as a factory worker out of high school and rising to become plant manager. He and his wife also started a property management and residential construction company. He grew up in a poor family and said that his experience has taught him the value of education and hard work. He said he would bring his experience as a worker, business owner and legislator to representing the 12th district.

"That’s the experience I bring to wanting to serve the people of the 12th Congressional District, but also the perspective of having lived the American dream, that is where in America anything is possible," Keller said. "In any other country in the world, I’d probably still be as poor as I was when I was a kid and so would my family... That’s why I want to serve, because I think the American dream is alive and well and we need to make sure the people in government realize that and make sure it stays alive and well for generations to come." editor Geoff Rushton interviewed Friedenberg and Keller in late April for C-NET, Centre County's government and education network. Following is a look at their views on several issue as well as the full videos of their interviews.


Both Friedenberg and Keller said that, whatever comes next for health care policy, it is critical that coverage for pre-existing conditions be protected.

Friedenberg cited his mother, who has had breast cancer twice and who "would be completely uninsurable" if not for the pre-existing conditions provisions of the Affordable Care Act. He added that the failed effort by Republicans to repeal the ACA in 2017 showed Americans believe the government has a role to play in protecting health care.

"The Affordable Care Act is imperfect, like all legislation is, but it’s worth protecting," Friedenberg said. "The administration’s effort now to undermine the ACA would be catastrophic. For people who get their insurance through their employer, it raised the bar on essential services that are provided."

He also said he was in favor of Pennsylvania's Medicaid expansion and supports "at a minimum" the option for individual Medicare buy-in, which would allow people to start their own businesses without fear of losing health care coverage from their current employers.

"We need to incentivize the creation of small businesses here," he said. "Right now so many people get their insurance through their employer they’re afraid, understandably, to leave and start up their own business because they’re not going to be able to afford health insurance."

Keller said covering pre-existing conditions "is a must," and that any new government plan must have "transparency and competition."

"Just because you say somebody’s going to be covered, whether it’s by Obamacare or anything else the government would come up with, doesn’t mean they’re going to receive care," he said.

Keller's personal experience showed him the importance of having choice in health care, he said. At the age of 3, his son Freddy suffered a head injury and was taken to Geisinger in Danville, where he was on life support for 26 days.

"Multiple times we had discussions with doctors and they said ‘When are you going to say enough is enough and disconnect the life support? ... He's not going to live," Keller said.

His son is now 27 and works at Geisinger. Keller contrasted that with two cases in the United Kingdom, where courts ruled in favor of doctors who determined children with rare genetic disorders who were on life support were not going to live and should begin palliative care. Keller said that is the difference between a single-payer system and choice, though the British High Court and supporters of those decisions said they were "best interest" cases to not prolong suffering, not a result of socialized medicine.


Both candidates agreed on the critical need to expand broadband Internet to underserved rural communities, though not necessarily on how to get there.

Friedenberg said small towns and rural communities are falling further behind metropolitan areas.

"One of the ways we can combat that to make sure we get our share here in rural Pennsylvania is making sure we’re connected to the Internet, which is critical really for all aspects of modern American life, but certainly for starting up small businesses," he said. "It’s not going to happen itself. The market has already shown us how much it’s willing to expand broadband and I think it’s very clear now there’s a role for government to play in incentivizing, offering grants and loans and making sure that the entire district gets wired up."

He added that investments are needed in infrastructure like roads and bridges, and that Pennsylvania needs to ensure greater equality for funding of public schools.

"In Pennsylvania we are the last place state in the country in terms of equality of how we fund K-12 education across the Commonwealth," Friedenberg said. "Unfortunately, rural Pennsylvania is really getting left behind there. I hear all the time from parents who say, 'My kid has to ride two hours to school in the morning because schools are shutting down and consolidating.' That just puts us into more and more of a tailspin."

Keller similarly said that transportation infrastructure and rural broadband are important ways to support rural communities. He said high-speed Internet has an key role in education, telemedicine and commerce.

"I know [rural broadband] was included as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but I think some things weren’t defined clearly, the measurables weren’t put out there that it actually happened correctly," he said. "So we need to look at that and how we get high-speed Internet access to rural communities for multiple reasons."

Ensuring family-sustaining jobs is another factor in supporting rural areas, he said, and with that residents need to have access to affordable job training.

"It’s not all a four-year with a bachelor’s or a doctorate or master’s degree but also making sure we invest in the trades and skilled labor to power the jobs that are going to be available… in our economy," Keller said. "That can be done through a 529 plan like we have for college at the state level."


Friedenberg said the cost of higher education and the student loan debt burden are among the top concerns he hears about from voters. While a four-year college isn't the right choice for everyone, he believes it should be affordable for those who choose it because it is a strong investment with the potential to earn degree holders significantly more over their lifetimes.

He wants to see the government cover up to half the cost of tuition for those who want to go to college and cannot otherwise afford it.

"I don’t want it to be fully free," Friedenberg said. "I want to make sure there’s some skin in the game and people aren’t rushing into the decision, but I think there’s an important role for the government to play there."

Friedenberg said Congress should also consider a student loan debt forgiveness program for people who go into public service, which can be broadly defined.

"It could be working directly for the government or serving underserved rural communities in some other way, maybe in being a health care provider, for example," he said. "We have a dire need for more medical, dental and mental health providers in every county in the district."

Keller said there needs to be "a lot of transparency" so that information about total education costs, job placement and the cost of repaying debt is made easily available to prospective students in degree or training programs.

He also said tuition costs should not outpace the rate of inflation, but he does not support canceling student loan debt.

"Changing who pays the bill doesn’t get rid of the debt," Keller said. "Changing who pays the bill is not reform. I think that’s an important thing we need to have a discussion with as policy makers. At the end of the day somebody is going to end up paying that bill and just having somebody else pay it doesn’t make it more affordable. It just moves the ball."


Both candidates said securing the southern border should be part of immigration policy.

"In some parts of the border it makes sense to have a fence or a wall; some places other technological measures like cameras; other places increased personnel," Friedenberg said.

He added that existing laws need to be followed and that currently there is strain on the asylum system. He would like to see more immigration judges with wider discretion, like other federal judges, to be able to "allocate the cases as they see fit and make sure they are deciding which cases are valid asylum claims and which ones are not."

Friedenberg also said that the value of immigration must be recognized.

"We need to realize immigration is actually very good for our economy," he said. "Particularly in this district, a university like Penn State really benefits from immigration. If we shut ourselves off from the rest of the world we’re going to hurt economically because of that."

Keller, too, said a wall or barrier in some places, and technology or personnel in others, are appropriate on the southern border.

The nation must also deal with the issue that people are coming into the country "and we don't know who they are," he said.

"I think it’s not one single solution. It’s a comprehensive plan," Keller said. "I know that was promised to be done in the '80s and didn’t happen then, so that’s an issue Congress really needs to gets behind and make sure that we fix, not only because it’s important to the safety of our nation but also the people that are trying to come here.

"The journey people are taking is pretty dangerous. We need to fix it for that reason, because you talk about human trafficking and things that are happening there. But also we as the United States, public safety is the responsibility of government."


Workers and businesses both thrive when workers have more money in their pockets, Friedenberg said.

"That’s why I think we need to reverse the December 2017 GOP tax bill," he said. "That gave permanent huge cuts to the wealthiest Americans and corporations that were able to lobby Congress to do their bidding, and smaller, and in some cases meaningful, but smaller, temporary cuts to everybody else, to working class Americans. I think that’s got it exactly backwards."

He added that many of the biggest corporations paid no federal taxes in 2017 and 2018.

"That points to a serious flaw in the system," Friedenberg said. "The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are falling further and further behind."

Keller, meanwhile, said that to help businesses thrive, and in turn workers, the government should not be placing more mandates on them. He said the costs to individuals and businesses of proposals like the Green New Deal and single-payer health care make them non-starters.

"Not lumping more burdensome regulations and tax burden on working families and businesses would be one way to make sure they continue to thrive, because as you know the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is at some of the lowest levels it’s been in a generation," he said.

He said that investment in businesses and employees should be encouraged.

"What I thought was important [upon receiving the Republican nomination] is the fact that I’ve gotten around the district to understand what’s important to people of the 12th congressional district and that’s... that there’s jobs available, adequate training for those jobs and so on so their families can have family sustaining wages," he said.


Friedenberg said the report on the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller clearly demonstrates that Russia targeted the U.S. electoral system in 2016 and attempted to again in 2018.

But, he said, the U.S. has not taken meaningful action to respond.

"The president doesn’t seem terribly interested in getting to the bottom of it," he said. "The New York Times just reported that the recently departed secretary of homeland security was told by the White House chief of staff not to bring up election interference with the president because he would view it as a personal slight. That means we haven’t defended our electoral system and we’re going to invite further attacks if we show the United States is weak. We need to push back and push back hard to show that every voter’s vote counts."

Keller said that with Mueller's report complete and no further indictments, it's time for Congress to move on.

"The Special Counsel put out his report and said no indictments on collusion. The Attorney General said there was no collusion," Keller said. "Congress now needs to work and get things done that will improve the quality of life for all American families. That’s what needs to happen."

Interview with Marc Friedenberg

Interview with Fred Keller

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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