Rep. Charlie Dent (R)
Pennsylvania 15th District
Allentown has long been derided by songwriters, from “42nd Street” back in 1933, in which it was scorned as the polar opposite of Broadway, to Billy Joel’s “Allentown” in 1982, with its grim picture of closed factories and joblessness. Though both contain nuggets of truth, neither is an entirely fair portrait of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley today. Allentown and next-door Bethlehem did suffer when big employers—Mack Truck in Allentown and Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem—closed down massive plants in the 1980s. But the Lehigh Valley around Allentown and Bethlehem in recent years had solid growth and low unemployment, thanks to a mix of regional health care networks, telephone call-centers for insurance companies and banks, and long-surviving industries, such as Air Products and Chemicals, energy utility PPL and the remnants of Mack Truck’s local operations. Its numerous small startups don’t earn the visibility of the big closedowns, but the fact is more new jobs have been created than those that were lost. In the Lehigh Valley, two-thirds of the employers have 10 or fewer workers.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
If the Lehigh Valley is off the main lines of traffic, it does have several features that make it attractive to people from the big city, which helps to explain why its population increased 7% from 2000 to 2007, in contrast to the stagnant growth in the Philadelphia area. Commuters seeking less expensive housing and lower taxes are connected by Interstate 78 to New York and by the Turnpike Extension to Philadelphia. It has a cluster of colleges—Lehigh, Muhlenberg, Moravian—and a strong regional newspaper—the Allentown Morning Call. It has both Dorney Park, one of the nation’s oldest amusement parks, and the delightful and child-friendly Crayola Crayon factory in Easton. Easton’s old industrial buildings, just across the Delaware River from New Jersey, have become something of a magnet for artists seeking inexpensive loft and warehouse space.
The 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania consists of the Lehigh Valley plus a small adjoining slice of northern Montgomery County, which has 11% of the district’s population. Some 11% of the population here is Hispanic, an increase from 8% in 2000 and higher than in any other Pennsylvania metropolitan area and a sure sign that the area is generating new jobs. In Allentown, the Hispanic share is 35%. Politically, this has long been a classic swing area, located at the intersection of heavily Democratic industrial precincts and the Republican farmlands of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The valley backed Republican Ronald Reagan twice, Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Democrat Bill Clinton twice. It voted for Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively, by miniscule margins. In the past six governors’ races, it voted for the winner each time: twice for Democrat Robert Casey, twice for Republican Tom Ridge and twice for Democrat Ed Rendell. Again reflecting the national vote, the district gave Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a 56%-43% win in 2008.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: May 24, 1960, Allentown .
Education: PA St. U., B.A. 1982, Lehigh U., M.P.A. 1993.
Family: Married (Pamela); 3 children.
Elected office: PA House of Reps., 1990-98; PA Senate, 1998-2004.
Professional Career: Development officer, Lehigh U., 1986-90.
The congressman from the 15th District is Charlie Dent, a Republican elected in 2004. Dent grew up in Allentown, graduated from Penn State University and got a graduate degree at Lehigh, where he later worked as a development officer. In 1990, he was elected to the state House and in 1998 to the state Senate. When Republican Rep. Pat Toomey announced that he would run against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary, Dent was the front-runner to succeed him. Dent’s lifelong residence in the Lehigh Valley was in sharp contrast to the background of the Democratic nominee, businessman Joe Driscoll. Driscoll grew up in Massachusetts, where he went sailing with the Kennedys and made enough money to spend $2 million on this race. But he lived for years in posh Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, just outside Philadelphia. He bought a townhouse in Upper Macungie Township to run for the seat, though his wife and children continued living outside the district.
|Charlie Dent (R)||181,433||(59%)||($1,775,398)|
|Sam Bennett (D)||128,333||(41%)||($950,043)|
|Charlie Dent (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (54%), 2004 (59%)
Dent framed the campaign as a contest between a native son and a carpetbagging outsider who thought of the Lehigh Valley as “a speed bump on his way to Congress.” Driscoll sought to deflect the residency issue with aggressive criticism of the Bush administration, asserting that a vote for Dent was an endorsement of Bush’s by then unpopular policies. Dent’s moderate record, which included support for abortion rights, made it difficult to tie him to Bush, and he insisted he would be an independent voice in Washington. Dent won 59%-39%. A few weeks after the election, Driscoll’s real estate agent said that he put his townhouse here up for sale and moved back to Lower Merion Township.
In the House, Dent has a mostly centrist voting record. With a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he worked to deliver local spending projects, in contrast to Toomey, who considered congressional earmarks a waste of taxpayer money. Dent supported more federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, which uses surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization. He opposed Bush’s plan for partial “privatization” of Social Security, and he was a last-minute supporter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Dent initially voiced skepticism about Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq, but he voted against the House Democrats’ resolution to oppose the surge.
On the Homeland Security Committee, Dent pushed a bill to use the Civil Air Patrol to prevent illegal crossings at the border. And he has introduced a bill to deport illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in the United States. In October 2007, he was one of 44 Republicans who voted to override Bush’s veto of the Democrats’ expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In February 2009, President Barack Obama invited Dent and his family to the White House to watch the Super Bowl, with the hope of getting his vote on his economic stimulus bill. But Dent said the bill cost too much and voted no. In 2009, Dent was appointed to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Democrats tried, but failed, to find a credible opponent to Dent in 2006. Northampton County Councilman Charles Dertinger got on the ballot as a write-in candidate, and made lots of noise criticizing Dent for Bush’s policies and “the culture of corruption.” Dent won by a surprisingly narrow 54%-43%. In 2008, Democrats nominated Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, who ran an Allentown charity. She spent $950,000, but lost to Dent 59%-41%.