Rep. Tim Holden (D)
Pennsylvania 17th District
Through the center of Pennsylvania flows the Susquehanna, the longest river in the East if you include the Chesapeake Bay, which is actually the flooded lower Susquehanna Valley. Starting in Cooperstown, N.Y., emptying into the Chesapeake next to the antique town of Havre de Grace, Md., the Susquehanna is the one river strong enough to break through the Appalachian Mountain chains of central Pennsylvania. But few songs are written to celebrate the Susquehanna. It has not been named for a fever (Potomac), for a school of painting (Hudson) or economics (Charles), or for a state (Delaware, Connecticut, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Tennessee). And its dams are silting up and threatening environmental havoc on the tenuously recovering Chesapeake, unless the unwieldy grouping of states through which the Susquehanna runs can find a solution. Already, millions of fish and fish eggs are killed each year by pollution. In 2005, the conservation group American Rivers rated the Susquehanna the nation’s “most endangered river,” due mostly to sewer system discharge. Low river flows in recent droughts resulted in large fish kills.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 17th Congressional District of Pennsylvania includes two distinct areas: the agricultural lands adjoining the Susquehanna River, and the industrial areas of Schuylkill and Berks counties. Forty percent of the district is centered on the state capital of Harrisburg. It includes Dauphin County, part of Perry County and Lebanon County. Harrisburg features a string of mansions-turned-lobbying headquarters gracefully lining the banks of the Susquehanna and boasts Pennsylvania’s marvelously restored Capitol building—its dome is modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, its stairway on the Paris Opera. Nearby is Hershey, the town erected by chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey as a carefully planned, utopian village for his factory workers and their families. The surrounding area, fed by a steady flow of tourists to the Hersheypark amusement park, has attracted top-flight hospitals and cultivated a prosperous air. (The U.S. House of Representatives held “civility retreats” here during the 1990s, but they lapsed due to insufficient interest). Directly south is Middletown, whose leafy, gridded streets and handsome homes give no hint that it is the location of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, site in 1979 of the worst nuclear accident in American history.
The eastern half of the district has a grittier heritage. In Berks and Schuylkill counties, towns existed solely to mine rich veins of anthracite coal, the nation’s primary energy source in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These mountain towns were less orderly, filled with tough-talking miners and factory workers—the Pennsylvania that John O’Hara knew growing up and wrote about in the 1930s and 1940s. Although the big companies abandoned the mines long ago, some local entrepreneurs still go deep underground to blast their way into the anthracite. Pottsville is the home of Yuengling lager (known locally as “Vitamin Y”), and produced the Maroons, the team that may have won the 1925 National Football League championship—the league disputed the claim, to Pottsville’s eternal chagrin—and whose ties to coal country are emblematic of the game’s hardscrabble roots. With a disproportionately old population, Schuylkill County had 228,000 people in 1940 and 147,000 in 2007.
Politically, the 17th leans Republican. Harrisburg has been a Republican town from the days when the party seemed to conquer all in Pennsylvania. Republicans held the governorship for all but eight years from 1860 to 1934 and filled the Capitol with Republican patronage hacks. Lebanon County is even more solidly Republican. Schuylkill County, in contrast, has a Democratic heritage from its mining days, though its Democrats tend to take conservative stands on cultural issues. The district voted 58% for Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 and 51% for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.
Rep. Tim Holden (D)
Elected: 1992, 9th term.
Born: March 5, 1957, Pottsville .
Home: St. Clair.
Education: U. of Richmond, 1976-78, Bloomsburg St. U., B.A. 1980.
Family: Married (Gwen).
Elected office: Schuylkill Cnty. sheriff, 1985–92.
Professional Career: Real estate agent; Insurance broker, Holden Insurance Agency, 1980–85; Probation officer, 1980-85.
The congressman from the 17th District is Tim Holden, a Democrat first elected from the old 6th District in 1992 and the winner of a 2002 battle between incumbents thrown together by redistricting. Holden comes from a political family from the coal mining hamlet of St. Clair. His great-grandfather was a coal miner who founded the forerunner to the United Mine Workers, and his father served four terms as Schuylkill County commissioner. Holden gained fame as a local football player, although tuberculosis cut short his college career. In 1985, at age 28, after selling insurance and real estate in the family business for five years, he was elected Schuylkill County sheriff. Holden’s opponent in the 1992 race for an open U.S. House seat was the better-financed John Jones III, a lawyer. But Holden’s regular guy appeal played well in culturally conservative and economically polarized Schuylkill County. He won 52%-48%.
|Tim Holden (D)||192,699||(64%)||($1,096,079)|
|Toni Gilhooley (R)||109,909||(36%)||($104,485)|
|Tim Holden (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (65%), 2004 (59%), 2002 (51%), 2000 (66%), 1998 (61%), 1996 (59%), 1994 (57%), 1992 (52%)
Holden has a moderate voting record, though it is more conservative on cultural issues. He is one of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and has consistently been near the center of the House. “The problems our country is facing need to be solved in a bipartisan manner,” he said. “There’re about 70 liberals and 70 ultraconservatives still in the House. They need to be left behind.” He opposes abortion rights, but in 2007, he supported federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, which uses excess embryos from in vitro fertilizations.
On the Agriculture Committee, he is the No. 2-ranking Democrat and chairman of the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee. On the farm bill enacted in 2008, he played a central role in doubling farmland preservation funding, which he called “extremely important in Pennsylvania.” He also crafted provisions aimed at reducing farm runoff into the Chesapeake. On the energy issue, his philosophy is: “Drill everywhere,” as he said in 2008, sounding like a Republican in calling for more energy production.
Holden also has gained influence as the senior Pennsylvanian on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. On the 2005 highway bill, he took credit for $10 million in local projects, far less than claimed by more influential or vulnerable members. But as earmarking has become controversial in recent years and criticized as wasteful, his earmarks have come under closer scrutiny in the press. In April 2009, the Lebanon Daily News reported that in the past year Holden got $3.2 million in earmarks for clients of the controversial PMA lobbying firm, which has close ties to the powerful Rep. John Murtha, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, and has been a major contributor to Holden’s campaigns.
After redistricting in 2001, Holden was thrown into the then newly created 17th District with Republican Rep. George Gekas. The Republican edge in the district favored Gekas, but Holden spent many hours knocking on doors in Dauphin and Lebanon County, while Gekas was less organized and slower to introduce himself to new voters. Holden won 51%-49%. In 2004, Republicans nominated Scott Paterno, a lawyer and the son of longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Holden won 59%-39%. Since then, Republicans have focused elsewhere.