In early 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the congressional map to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered and drew a new map to replace it. Slippery Rock University, which used to be located in the 3rd district, is now located in the 16th district, which now includes all of Erie County. These changes make this district more Democratic, going from Trump +16 to +8. As a result, this district is considered to be competitive for the first time since 2010. This past Wednesday, President Trump came to campaign on behalf of Rep. Mike Kelly, something that has not been done for a House candidate in Pa. since Rick Saccone in PA-18 (Saccone lost to Democrat Conor Lamb by a margin of 755 votes).
One year ago, nobody thought this district would have a competitive election, but under one month out from election day, Democrat Ron DiNicola has taken this race from a 15 percent race to one around or under five percent. So, what actually makes this race notable? Simple – a high-profile far-right GOP representative in a deep red seat, Mike Kelly, might actually be vulnerable to a moderate Democratic candidate, Ron DiNicola. The avilable data supports that. Several political pundits changed their categorization of the race to be “lean Republican” instead of “safe Republican.” The polls taken of voters in the district give Kelly an average 5.5 percent advantage (with an average five percent margin of error). In comparison, Kelly won by 20 percent in 2014. Democrats look to score a win in a similar method to what was used to push Conor Lamb over the edge, while Republicans hope to defend one of their most staunch partisans. As mentioned above, the Republicans have gotten the President involved, while the Democrats have engaged major fundraising and infrastructure assistance behind the scenes.
Of course, while the national headlines are certainly an attention-getter, often lost is the question of who are these candidates and what do they stand for.
Ronald “Ron” DiNicola is the Democrat. A native of Erie, Ron is the child of an immigrant and enlisted in the Marines out of high school. Ron became a boxer, winning several championship titles for the Marine Corps Boxing Team. He went on to graduate from Harvard and Georgetown University with the help of the G.I. Bill, serving as Solicitor of Erie County and unsuccessfully running for this seat in 1996 (an editorial in the 11/1/1996 edition of The Rocket endorsed him over the Republican canidate.) Ron was the personal attorney of Muhammed Ali, helping him advocate for federal reform of boxing and speaking at his funeral in 2016. As a lawyer, Ron represented 1,000 former GE employees against the U.S. Department of Labor to reverse a decision denying them benefits.
George “Mike” Kelly is the Republican and four-term incumbent. First elected in 2010, Kelly is a native of Butler and attended the University of Notre Dame on a football scholarship. After graduating, Kelly returned to Butler to work at his family’s car dealership, which he purchased full ownership of in 1990 and continues to run as a representative. In the House, Kelly has positioned himself as a Republican powerbroker, serving on the Ways and Means committee, which writes tax & financial policy. Kelly has been given a 95 percents rating from the pro-business Chamber of Commerce; however he has received a D-grade from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a five percent from the ACLU, four percent from Planned Parenthood, and zero percent from the Clean Water Action group. Kelly has made national headlines several times, most recently in 2017 when he claimed that former president Barack Obama was operating a “shadow government” and comparing the Environmental Protection Agency to terrorism.
There are a lot of issues that I would consider to be important to the students and faculty this campus. The number issue would be policy relating to higher education. While college policy is controlled at a state level, the federal involvement in these issues cannot be ignored, and each candidate has spoken about these issues. Kelly has positioned himself as an ally of Secretary of Education DeVos, as well as saying at a debate this past Monday that college debt was a problem due to loan companies “not properly vetting” students. Kelly has previously stated that many college students were studying ‘worthless’ topics and that federal aid should be used for trade schools instead of university students. Mr. DiNicola, conversely, has pledged to increase federal funding to student aid programs as well as work to create new programs to promise public service opportunities to repay student loans.
On the list of important issues, social policy is also of great importance. Slippery Rock University contains women of all backgrounds, people of all different gender identities and sexual orientation, as well as a population of people of color. Lawmakers like Kelly help to decide policies that affect people in those categories. Kelly’s position, as he has stated before, is that social issues are not a concern of the federal government but should be handled at a local level or not at all. Earlier this year, Kelly took legislation to the floor of the House to repeal a regulation requiring that car dealers couldn’t charge racial minorities more for a car or for vehicle service. Mr. DiNicola, in contrast, believes that social issues are the business of the government, including employment protections for minorities and equal opportunities for underprivileged demographics.
With the election imminent, I believe it is important to vote with your conscience. If you prefer a representative who doesn’t believe in supporting this university or the people in it, vote for Mr. Kelly. However, I can confidently say that I will be casting a vote in my own interest for Mr. Ron DiNicola this Nov. 6. I encourage all my colleagues and students to do the same.