Election Day will be a little different than a typical primary in parts of Centre County on May 21 as a special election for the 12th Congressional District U.S. Congress seat up for grabs. Former Congressman Tom Marino retired abruptly just weeks after securing the seat in 2018 to take a job in the private sector.
The day is usually reserved for registered Republicans and Democrats to choose their party’s candidate for the November general election. However, the special election is open to all voters in the 12th District, meaning that independent voters, not registered as Republican or Democrat, who usually sit out on primary day, are able to make a choice at the polls on Tuesday.
In Centre County, the 12th District includes Ferguson Township, State College, 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.
Just two months before resigning, Marino, a Lycoming County republican, won a fifth term in Congress, defeating Ferguson Township resident Marc Friedenberg with 66 percent of the vote.
Friedenberg, an attorney and faculty member at Penn State, where he teaches cybersecurity and cyber law, is again the Democratic hopeful for the seat. He is up against Synder County Republican Fred Keller. Keller has represented the 85th District, which covers Snyder and Union counties, in the state House since 2011.
On May 2, Keller and Friedenberg spoke with C-Net about their reasons for running in the election and their views on keys issues.
Keller said he spent a few years living in State College as a kid before he moved west.
“We were a poor family, and that is what drives me to want to serve. As a kid we were poor and I learned about the value of education and hard work,” said Keller. He said after high school he got a job in a factory which he later managed. He also said he started a small business in property management and residential construction. Eventually, he was elected to serve as a state legislator.
“That is the experience I bring in wanting to serve the people of the 12th Congressional District, and also the perspective of having lived the American Dream. And that in America anything is possible,” said Keller.
Before taking his position at Penn State, Friendeberg received his law degree from Columbia University and worked as a lawyer in New York, saying he worked on suits against the banks that caused the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008.
He said he is motivated to run in order to fight what he terms as “brain drain” in Centre County and the whole congressional district as students graduate college and leave the district to pursue jobs in other places and not come back. He said his goal is to fight to provide more high-paying sustainable jobs to the area.
“I think this a time that calls for ordinary people, non-politicians, to step up and try to contribute in a meaningful way. This is the way that I have chosen (to run) and I am glad to have the opportunity to continue the work that I started last year,” said Friedenberg.
Friedenberg said it is important that all Americans have access to affordable healthcare and that the first step is to defend the part of Affordable Health Care Act’s protection for pre-existing conditions. He said there is a role for government to play in protecting health care for Americans.
“The Affordable Care Act is imperfect, like all legislation is, but it is worth protecting,” said Friedenberg. “The administration's effort now to undermine the ACA would be catastrophic for people who get their insurance for their employees.”
Friedenberg brought up someone like his mom who has twice had breast cancer and said she would be uninsurable if it weren't for the protection offered by the ACA.
Keller also said the first thing needed to be ensured with health care is that preexisting conditions are covered.
“But we also need to have transparency and competition in any plan that we put forth,” said Keller. He pointed to his son, Freddy, who was on life support for 26 days after he had brain surgery due to head injury that occurred when he was 3 years old.
“Multiple times we had discussions with the doctors and they said, ‘when are you going to say enough is enough and disconnect the life support?’ They told us ‘it’s not a 50 percent mortality rate, not a 95 percent rate but a 100 percent mortality rate and he is not going to live.’ Because we had control over his health care he is now 27 years old and now works for the hospital that saved his life. So I think it is important that we don’t give that kind of control to our government — to control whether or not we get health care and what level health care we get.”
Keller said that investing in infrastructure, particularly broadband internet connection, is important for education, healthcare and businesses.
“Also to make sure that there are family-sustaining jobs available with a vibrant economy and job training,” said Keller. He said that training in trade jobs is important.
Friedenberg said that supporting rural areas is paramount.
“What we are seeing is metropolitan areas are getting richer and richer and rural areas and small towns are falling further and further behind, and there are some structural changes in our economy that are making that happen. One of the ways that we can combat that and make sure that we are getting our share in rural Pennsylvania is making sure that we are connected to the internet,” said Friedenberg.
He said health care is tied into this as well, as people are afraid to leave employers and start small business because they don’t want to lose health insurance.
He also said the discrepancy of the school system is something that he would like to see addressed.
STUDENT LOAN DEBT, COST OF EDUCATION
As a Penn State Grad who is still paying off loans and as employee at Penn State, Friedenberg said he is very familiar with the issue.
“Now college isn’t the right choice for everybody, but for people that want to go to college and it is the right choice for them, I think we do need to make sure that it is affordable, because one of the best investments we can make as a society is in education,” said Friedenberg.
He said that he would like to see government pay for half of the cost of college per year for any student who wants to go and can’t afford it.
“I don’t want it to be fully free. I want to make sure there is some skin in the game and that people aren’t rushing to the decision,” said Friedenberg.
He also supports debt and loan forgiveness for people who go into public service.
Keller said that better transparency when it comes to the cost of education and loan repayment is important for students as they think about college or training. He doesn't think forgiving student loan debt is a solution to the problem.
“You talk about the amount of the debt — changing who pays the bill doesn’t take away the debt. So making sure that college education or any kind of education doesn’t continue to outpace the rate of inflation or become unaffordable is what’s important. Changing the government to paying doesn’t solve the problem. Changing the bill is not reform.”
Keller said he feels strongly about border security and that a border wall or barrier should be constructed in needed places in the southern border.
He also said there are VISA issues and there are people who are already in the country that need to be addressed and that a multitude of things should be done to fix immigration law. He said it is important for the safety of the nation but also for people trying to come into the country.
“Public safety is the responsibility of government so protecting our border and making sure that our immigration laws make sense is something Congress needs to act on,” said Keller.
Friedenberg said he would like to see saw the immigration laws being followed.
“Right now there is some strain on the asylum system at the southern border. I think we can get more immigration judges. I would like to see them actually be article three judges and give them some wider discretion to make sure that they allocate the cases as they see fit,” said Friedenberg.
“Everybody wants border security and in some parts of the border it makes sense to have a fence or a wall. But I think we need to realize that immigration is actually very good for our economy particularly in this district. A university like Penn State really benefits from immigration,” he said. “If we shut ourselves off from the rest of the world we are going to hurt economically because of that.”
Friedenberg said he would like to change the most recent tax law and make sure a new one would benefit workers.
“I think that workers and business both thrive when there is more money in people’s pockets. That why I think we need to reverse the December 2017 GOP tax bill,” said Friedenberg. He said that bill permitted large tax cuts to corporations.
“The rich are getting richer and rest of us are falling further behind,” said Friedenberg
Keller said that in order to keep the low unemployment rate higher in Pennsylvania, it is important to keep taxes down. He feels that things like the proposed Green New Deal and socialized single payer health care will not help the economy.
“The Green New Deal is $93 trillion and that will cost every Pennsylvania family $600,000. So certainly not a pathway to success for families and business,” said Keller. “So not lumping more tax burdens on Pennsylvania families and business would be one way to make sure they continue to thrive.”