Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D)
Pennsylvania 3rd District
The best natural harbor on Lake Erie is in Erie, Pennsylvania, protected by the Presque Isle (“almost an island”) peninsula—a cowlick-shaped, seven-mile-long sand spit blanketed by mature forest, with a lighthouse dating to 1872. Erie is in Pennsylvania’s far northwest corner, only about 100 miles from Cleveland but 428 miles from Center City Philadelphia. There is farmland here, and even some woods, but the land between the Great Lakes and the basin of the Ohio River has been prime heavy industry territory for more than a century. The jeep, which Gen. George Marshall called America’s greatest contribution to World War II, was invented in Butler County. In the 1990s, under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, an Erie native, the state invested $100 million in Erie’s waterfront to develop a cruise ship terminal, hotel and convention center, a ballpark for the single-A Erie SeaWolves baseball team, and restorations to the Warner Theatre. The effort spruced up a dying downtown, but it didn’t buffer Erie from a subsequent economic downturn. International Paper, American Meter, Gunite/EMI and American Sterilizer laid off employees and closed plants. Local colleges document a brain drain as high as 70% from the region. General Electric, the area’s largest employer for much of the 20th century, also had major cutbacks, though it still had 5,500 employees in 2008.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 3rd Congressional District of Pennsylvania occupies this northwest corner of the state—all of Erie County, most of Mercer, Crawford and Butler counties and about half of Warren, Venango, and Armstrong counties. Erie County has 44% of the district’s population, and had almost no population gains from 2000 to 2007. Growth has been modest in Butler County, on the northern edge of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, while other parts of the district have lost population. Politically, the mix of industrial and rural voters makes for closely balanced territory. Erie and Mercer counties vote Democratic in most national elections, but they have also voted for Republicans with working class appeal, like Ridge, who is from a Catholic working-class family in Erie. The other counties are culturally conservative and solidly Republican. In 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain won the district by a mere 17 votes out of more than 291,000 cast. McCain won all of the outlying counties, but Democrat Barack Obama carried Erie, 59%-39%.
Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Dec. 10, 1957, Erie .
Education: Edinboro U., 1982.
Family: Married (Dan); 5 children.
Professional Career: Dahlkemper Landscape Architects, HR mgr. & dir. of Special Projects, 1997-2008; Director, Lake Erie Arboretum, 2000-08; Dietician
The new congresswoman from the 3rd District is Kathy Dahlkemper, a Democrat who unexpectedly overcame a significant fundraising disadvantage to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Phil English in 2008. She grew up in Erie, the daughter of a General Electric accountant. She graduated from Edinboro University and is a dietician by training. After working in Houston for four years as a clinical dietician, she returned to her hometown in 1986 to open her own consulting shop. Like a lot of women, Dahlkemper has balanced work and family for most of her life. After she and her first husband divorced, she raised her son from that marriage on her own for a time. She has four children with her second husband, Dan Dahlkemper, who runs a landscaping business. Her daughter, Linden, serves in the U.S. Coast Guard, and several extended family members are in the military. Dahlemper was a political newcomer when she decided to challenge English, a seven-term incumbent. She said bringing jobs back to blue-collar Western Pennsylvania and enticing young people to raise their families there were her top priorities.
|Kathy Dahlkemper (D)||146,846||(51%)||($1,301,838)|
|Phil English (R)||139,757||(49%)||($2,633,349)|
|Kathy Dahlkemper (D)||43,858||(45%)|
|Kyle Foust (D)||24,672||(25%)|
|Tom Myers (D)||18,584||(19%)|
|Mike Waltner (D)||10,532||(11%)|
In the April primary, she won 45% of the vote against three other Erie-based opponents. In the general election campaign, English outraised Dahlkemper by more than $1.3 million, although the national Democratic Party helped narrow the gap. The result said more about voters’ desire for change than about the ideologically similar candidates, and English ultimately fell victim to the electorate’s disillusionment with the Bush administration. Like English, Dahlkemper is an anti-abortion rights Catholic, supports gun ownership, and, as part of her “whole life” view, opposes the death penalty. She repeatedly sought to tie English to President George W. Bush, and criticized him for voting in February 2008 against a Democratic bill to increase taxes on big oil companies. English ran an ad criticizing Dahlkemper for refusing to release her tax returns, and the National Republican Congressional Committee aired a spot calling her ideas on conserving energy, which included walking and biking, as “wacky.”
But aside from the usual back-and-forth between competitive candidates, the race never turned nasty. English suffered from the loss of some of his traditional labor support. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had endorsed him early in his career, ran $500,000 in television advertising targeting English’s support for Bush’s economic policies. A few weeks before the election, when polls showed her with an eight-point advantage over English, Dahlkemper said of her first political campaign, “I’ve had to learn a lot.” She added that the time she had to spend raising money “is really daunting, and I know it keeps a lot of good people from running for office.” Dahlkemper won by more than 7,000 votes, 51% to 49%.
In the House, Dahlkemper got seats on the Agriculture, Science and Technology, and Small Business committees. And she said she intended to be a centrist, citing as a model the voting pattern of Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire in the adjacent 4th District.