Redistricting Makes Blue Dog Holden an Underdog

Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:04pm

SCRANTON, Pa. — They don’t know Rep. Tim Holden here.

The conservative Democrat spent the past 20 years representing a district less than 100 miles away, but his name is not familiar in these parts of northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Tim Holden? Yeah, but I can’t place it,” said Rosemary Battista, a retired factory worker and local Democrat.

“I didn’t even know he was a Congressman until I saw him on TV,” said John Ford, an 81-year-old Democrat in a Penn State Nittany Lions sweatshirt.

“Tim Hogan?” asked Irene Speicher, another Democrat and retiree. “I don’t know him.”

It’s ironic and, perhaps, intentional that Holden — a political survivor for decades — finds himself in this precarious situation. He fended off GOP challengers in his Republican-leaning district for a decade after defying the odds and defeating a GOP Congressman in 2002.

But when Republicans redrew the Congressional map last year, they packed nearly every Democrat in northeastern Pennsylvania into the reconfigured 17th district, which now stretches from Holden’s Schuylkill County base north through Scranton all the way to the New Jersey line.

As a result, Holden is in big trouble in next Tuesday’s primary in a district that includes 80 percent new turf for him. His Democratic opponent, attorney Matt Cartwright, presents a trifecta of positive attributes: deep pockets, a well-known name in the district’s largest media market and views that are to the left of the Blue Dog Democrat’s conservative voting record. Not to mention the fact that Cartwright has been aided by the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent outside group that has spent heavily targeting Holden.

“Absolutely, it’s a competitive race,” the lawmaker said in an interview. “The reasons for that are Matt is a very wealthy individual. You take a self-funder, combined with a super PAC of billionaire Republicans from Texas who are targeting incumbents — we’re being outspent. That makes it competitive, that makes it a challenge.”

As Seen on TV

Local residents greet Cartwright like a Scranton celebrity when he walks into the room. That’s because he’s been a regular face on TV for years in the city where the majority of Democratic primary voters reside.

“I knew him when he was on television, even before he ran,” said Maryann Corradino, a 55-year-old health care worker. “I think Cartwright has it down.”

For the past 15 years, his firm Munley, Munley & Cartwright aired television spots with his name on local broadcast stations. He also married into one of the best-known Democratic families in the region, the Munleys.

“Munley up here is like Smith in Washington,” said Skip Ward, a 61-year-old videographer from the Scranton area.

What’s more, for the past seven years, Cartwright has starred in a popular segment on the evening news, “The Law and You.” He answered viewers’ questions about their legal rights in the three-minute segments that aired five nights a week. As Cartwright describes the experience, which ended in December just before he announced, he looks like he’s been planning this campaign for years.

“It’s something that I’ve always thought of doing,” Cartwright said later in an interview. “There was never a realistic possibility of that until this time.”

Redistricting gave Cartwright an opening, and he came financially prepared for the challenge. He’s put $390,000 of his own money into his campaign and raised an additional $307,000. It’s the kind of cash that makes any longtime incumbent squirm even before the aforementioned super PAC promised to dump $200,000 into the race blasting Holden.

Holden has raised just over $900,000 for his first tough contest in a decade. But even though he complains his opponent is a self-funder, the geographical disadvantages in the new district appear to be hurting him the most in his re-election.

“They ask me, ‘Who are you running against?’” Cartwright said. “If I’ve just seen one of the attack ads Mr. Holden’s been throwing at me, I say, ‘I forget the guy’s name. He’s from a long way away.’”

On this chilly Thursday morning, Cartwright campaigns in a retirement home and senior event for a local state Representative. He’s targeting voters over the age of 50, who make up the majority of the Democratic primary electorate in this district.

As he greets potential voters, Cartwright displays a trial attorney’s sense of overt charm. With a gray suit and matching salt-and-pepper hair, he flirts with the elderly ladies and talks college football with their husbands. When Cartwright departs for the parking lot at Allied Terrace Assisted Living Facility, he hears shouts from the windows above him.

“Hey Matt, we couldn’t get down, but we’re all for you,” a pair of elderly ladies exclaim.

“I feel like Romeo down here,” Cartwright slickly responds.

What Happened to Timmy?

They know Holden in Pottsville, but most of them can’t vote for him. He’s counted on the support of Republicans in his base of Schuylkill County for years, but longtime supporters like Ray Rice, the owner of the Coney Island restaurant, can’t help him this time.

“I can’t vote for him in the primary, only in the general election, unfortunately. But he has my total support,” said Rice, 70. “I think he’s doing well around here, but he’s not doing well up north.”

Schuylkill County has served as Holden’s home and political base for his entire tenure in Congress, but this county includes only a fraction of the Democratic voters in the redrawn district.

Nonetheless, in these parts, voters know the Congressman simply as Timmy. He’s endeared himself to the region, especially since his legendary 2002 victory. In that round of redistricting, Republicans sought to defeat Holden by placing him in a GOP-leaning district with then-Rep. George Gekas (R).

“I thought I was reading my political obituary in the newspaper for a week and a half,” Holden recalled. “I actually had considered not running, but I had enough money in the bank to do polling, and it showed me tied with George Gekas.”

A decade later, Holden is visibly worried about his re-election prospects. He stood anxiously on the side of a Northampton County Democrats fundraiser Thursday evening, sipping Miller Lite alongside his wife.

Later on, in his speech to the party faithful, Holden proclaimed he “stood shoulder-to-shoulder with” President Barack Obama. It’s a surreal declaration for a Blue Dog who voted against the president’s health care overhaul and is against abortion.

“They always said that, though, that I was a pawn of [Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi, every campaign anyway,” Holden said in an interview. “I think our Founding Fathers had it right. You are a representative to Congress. If I had voted like Nancy, or [California Rep.] Henry Waxman, or the Manhattan delegation ­— who I’m friends with — we wouldn’t be talking right now. I would have been long gone.”

But maybe that’s why Democrats in this Holden stronghold weren’t enthusiastic about re-electing Holden to an 11th term. Democrats such as Vickie Lord, a longtime tour guide at Pottsville’s Yuengling Brewery, knows Holden as the “local boy” who always aired positive advertisements. But the negative ad wars have worn on her, and now she’s not sure for whom she’ll vote in next week’s primary.  

“Sometimes people get old and stagnant in their ways,” she said. “I’m not opposed to new ideas, new faces, refreshing things every once in a while. Just because you’re there 20 years doesn’t mean you should be there 20 more. Maybe it’s time for a change.”