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Democrat Cartwright advises GOP to tame the ‘crazies’

Unparalleled winner in a Trump district also has advice for fellow Democrats

UNITED STATES - MARCH 1: Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Rayburn Building office on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 1: Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Rayburn Building office on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Matt Cartwright is a straight shooter. That much is evident upon stepping into his office, and seeing a seven-point buck’s head mounted on the wall among photos of some of the charming downtowns in his Northeastern Pennsylvania district. The Democrat shot the deer recently, on state game lands not far from his home.

Credibility is the key for Cartwright. It’s what made him a successful trial attorney, and it’s what the Pennsylvania Democrat credits for his unparalleled electoral success — the Congressional Progressive Caucus member is the only Democrat to win four times in a district that voted for Donald Trump. 

So, there’s maybe reason to believe him when he says he wants a “strong Republican Party” that shouldn’t “let the crazies take over.” 

Cartwright, in an interview in early March, shared his advice for the GOP, as well as Democrats trying to emulate his wins in red-tinted districts like his. He also set the record straight about the most frequently mispronounced city in Pennsylvania. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Is it true that the first thing you said to President Joe Biden when he called to congratulate you on your last reelection was to ask him about restoring passenger rail between Scranton and New York? And if so, why is that such an important issue for you?

A: No, I think I said “Hello” and “How are you?” first.

Q: Did you say “Sorry you didn’t win my district?” Rub it in a little?

A: [Laughs] No, that’s not my style. I’ve been friends with Joe Biden for probably close to 30 years now.

He called me and I put him on speaker phone because Marion and the boys were there — we have two boys — but I thanked him for the call and said, “But you know, Mr. President, they ran that selfie we took of each other at the White House Christmas party, where we’re wearing tuxedos and grinning like schoolboys into the camera. The other side ran that picture about 4,000 times on television and said, “Cartwright votes 100 percent with Biden. Don’t vote for Cartwright.” Mr. President, the least you can do is put me in your will.

He laughed and didn’t miss a beat, he said, “Matt, I would, but you’d be in for a big letdown.”

But passenger rail is a big priority. And it’s not because I’m one of those people with a tripod out and a video camera taking pictures of trains going by.

Q: You’re not a railfan?

A: It’s because I’m a jobs fan. We need more and better paying jobs in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s why I ran for Congress. Amtrak reckons that it’ll add $84 million per year, every year, in additional economic activity. So we’re closing [in] on approval for that, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Q: You’re one of five Democrats that represent a district that Trump won. You’re the only one in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and you’re the only Democrat to do this four times now. What are you doing right that other Democrats in swing districts are doing wrong?

 A: I can’t comment on what they’re doing wrong — I don’t know what they’re doing. I can tell you what I do.

I focus on credibility. I think credibility really matters. I did courtroom jury trials for 25 years. The one thing you figured out right quick is that people care about who’s believable. And they’re searching very hard to figure out who they should believe.

So, tell the truth. Don’t shade the truth. Be upfront about things people might not like. Be honest about who you are and what you’re up to. I think that’s the fundamental secret — it’s the great shared trait between jury trials and elections — is that people want to know who to believe. Why do people hate politicians? Because they think they lied to them.

This last election, it was thermonuclear war, $10 million each way. Do you know how much defamation $10 million buys in Scranton, Pennsylvania? A lot!

I have a tradition. On Election Day, I’ll go to all five counties in my district and stand in front of a polling place and talk to people. I went to one of the most Republican parts of my district, in Pike County, and here comes a voter. He looks at me, and he’s wearing a jacket and tie, and he says “Oh, you’re Cartwright, I voted for you.”

I said, “Thank you, tell me about yourself.” Well, he’s a registered Republican, he’s a business owner — it had something to do with supply chain logistics — and I asked him why he voted for me. He said, “Credibility.”

Q: While you won reelection, you did lose a race last year — to Abigail Spanberger to be the battleground district representative to House Democratic leadership. She got the New Democrat endorsement, while you’re in the Progressive Caucus. Did that hurt you?

A: I don’t know. First of all, Abigail Spanberger is a terrific candidate and she has worked very hard in that role, so I fully support her and I’m thrilled she got the position.

As for the mechanics of why she won…. I think it has a lot less to do with ideology than who you’re friends with.

Q: You were co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the messaging arm of the House Democrats. What is your assessment of the current Republican Party messaging?

A: I think they’re hurting themselves right now. They’re putting people out front that are damaging their brand, people whose business model is to say outrageous things and raise money off that on social media. That’s not going to help them with the people in the middle. Somebody said years ago, these national elections are always fought over the 7 percent right in the middle of the spectrum. And those are the 7 percent of people that care about credibility. They don’t care if somebody is a soundbite specialist.

Q: Let me ask you a follow up — if you honestly wanted to help the GOP, what would you tell them to do?

A: Jim, I do want to help the Republican Party! Because a strong Republican Party means a strong America, in the same way that a strong Democratic Party means a strong America. We need people who are sober and clear-eyed about sensible solutions for this country. And there are loads of Republicans who do have sensible solutions. My advice is: Speak up! Don’t let the crazies take over the message. It doesn’t help your party and it doesn’t help the country.

Q: You’ve been on the Democratic Steering Committee since 2016, and you’re now the regional representative for Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. What are you telling your fellow Democrats about what the party needs to do to be competitive again in those three other states?

A: I talk a lot about infrastructure. The Infrastructure and Jobs Act was a big win — not only for the Democratic Party but for the country. And people say, “Oh, infrastructure, that’s boring, anybody could do it.”

But I say no. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The last time we did a major infrastructure bill was in the Eisenhower administration, which was before I was born. So by definition, this $1.2 trillion we invested in our country, in our roads, our bridges, our sewer systems, our water systems, our rail systems, broadband internet — this is a big win for this country and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Quick Hits

OK, this first rapid-fire question I personally think is the hardest. How do you pronounce this town [pointing to “Wilkes-Barre” written on a notepad]?

WILKS-berry. The key is that you emphasize the “Wilkes,” and then people will forgive you for butchering the “Barre” part.

What’s the last book that you read?

I just finished “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In politics, can the ends justify the means?

It depends on what the means are.

What is your least popular opinion?

I’m a rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan. A lot of vile Giants fans live in my district.

What was your favorite concert that you’ve been to?

I saw ZZ Top and 38 Special in 1979. There haven’t been any to top that, but I’m going to see Joni Mitchell tonight, so we’ll see.

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