For both candidates vying to represent Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Keith Rothfus, the issue that may loom largest is the economy.
But the views of the two incumbent congressmen — their existing districts were effectively combined in a court-ordered redistricting — about which economic policies work best are in sharp contrast. While Lamb contends that the Trump administration has not improved the economic situation for workers in Western Pennsylvania, Rothfus maintains that today’s economy is not only the strongest one America has experienced in 20 years, but that the economic policies implemented by the current Republican-led Congress are the best way to shore up prosperity and social service programs for everyone.
This race is the only one in the country pitting two sitting federal legislators against each other: Rothfus, who is currently serving his third term representing Pennsylvania’s 12th District, and Lamb, who has represented the 18th District since scoring a victory over Rick Saccone last March and filling the seat of Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned.
The new 17th District comprises Beaver County and part of suburban Allegheny County, including Mt. Lebanon, Fox Chapel and Sewickely.
Lamb and Rothfus each sat down with the Chronicle to discuss key issues prior to the Nov. 6 midterm election.
It’s the economy
People are “struggling” in the current economy, Lamb said. “When I’m out there knocking on people’s doors, going to community meetings, what people care about is their paycheck, and their ability to pay for their kids’ education and their ability to save for their retirement. And a lot of people are struggling with that right now. People in the middle class — $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year — they really have not seen a significant pay raise, in some cases in decades. The president is talking about this booming economy, but we are not really seeing it affect people in the middle. So I think we have to talk about things like raising the minimum wage, getting it up to $15 over time.”
Labor unions need to be protected, continued Lamb, and the United States needs a “true national infrastructure program which will create jobs for people in the middle class. You really want to talk about fairness to people who work for a living and social justice, which I know is an important part of the Jewish tradition.”
Rothfus had a different view of the economy.
“Wages are going up for the first time in years,” he said. “And because of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, one of the biggest surprises to me was companies who, on their own, are raising their own minimum wage. We saw that here in Western Pennsylvania. This is part of a bottom-up healthy economy.”
The economic policies that Lamb advocates do not work, Rothfus said. “We tried my opponent’s model of more government and higher taxes under the prior administration. And we got lethargic economic growth that was worsening income disparity, not providing the opportunities that people want to have. So, rather than putting the brakes on this economy — we have a steam engine rolling right now — let’s not put the brakes on and go back to the more government and higher taxes model. I have yet to hear one pro-growth policy from my opponent.”
Affordable health insurance continues to be a hot button issue for many residents of Western Pennsylvania, and Lamb’s campaign has been running 30-second television ads accusing “the government” of wanting to take away insurance protections for people with preexisting conditions.
Rothfus was unequivocal in calling those accusations “just wrong.”
“You can take a look at our legislation that we put forth that expressly protected individuals with preexisting conditions. Period, full stop,” Rothfus said.
The Affordable Care Act did not deliver on what its supporters promised, Rothfus continued. “Everything they said would happen, didn’t happen or vice versa. They said that 20 million people would get insurance and only 9.5 million people did. They said it was going to lower premiums; it didn’t. They said you could keep your plan; you couldn’t. They said you could keep your doctor; you couldn’t. We came up with a plan that would actually have addressed a lot of the problems created by the ACA, giving states more flexibility if the state chooses, but at the same time, expressly providing that people with pre-existing conditions will be covered.”
Lamb admitted that the ACA “wasn’t perfect,” but added that “the other side has no alternatives.”
“They wanted to repeal that law, and they had nothing to replace it with,” Lamb said. “So, I think the challenge to us is to look at how the marketplaces were operating, and the biggest problem is that in large parts of the country, only one insurer was going into the marketplaces to offer a product, so they were not competitive.”
Insurance prices kept increasing, he admitted. “Part of that is because we did a good thing. I mean for the first time in history, we told the insurance companies that they had to insure people with pre-existing conditions. But at the same time we knew they were the most expensive patients. If you are an insurance actuary, you’ve got a plan 10 years out, and now you’ve got all these people with cancer and really expensive conditions on your rolls. So they protected themselves; they raised the rates. I think the challenging thing for the next generation of reforms is, how do you stabilize the marketplace, so they don’t have to react so dramatically?”
Both candidates say they support Israel. But Lamb questioned the timing of Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“In general I believe that the U.S. government should do what’s in its interest,” Lamb said. “So, we should put our embassy in a country in a place that serves our foreign policy goals in that country. Did I think that was the time for it? I didn’t understand why he did it at that particular time, but if people in the government feel we can get our work done the best there, then I’m fine with it, and I’m not going to criticize the president about it.”
But the timing of the embassy move, Lamb said, “seemed like it definitely inflamed an already pretty dangerous and divisive situation.”
In contrast, the embassy move had Rothfus’ wholehearted support.
“Moving the embassy was America’s aliyah,” Rothfus said. “It was something that was long overdue, going up to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Presidents have talked about that since President Clinton at least, and President Trump did it.”
A member of the Israel Victory Caucus, Rothfus believes that “having the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist is the precursor to any permanent peace out there.”
The candidates differ on how they view U.S. involvement in attempts to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Israel “and elsewhere” the role of the United States should be “to try to promote peace wherever it can,” said Lamb, who is supported by J Street PAC. “And my understanding is, the times in our history when we’ve done our best on this problem, it has been to encourage talks directly between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or to play a convening role, to be a spark plug for good things to happen between those two sides.”
Rothfus, who has been to Israel twice, supported the Trump administration’s decision to cut all funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees, which, he said, “funnels money to Hamas who continues to agitate and create trouble in Gaza and puts [incendiary] balloons over the border to Sderot, so little kids can pick them up.”
Lamb opposed the decision and was one of more than 70 House Democrats to sign a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton urging the administration to refrain from cutting that funding, which they said would exacerbate “the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip.”
Rothfus said he is not opposed to humanitarian aid in Gaza, “as long as they stop the attacks on Israel. We are going to stand with Israel. I am not going to equivocate on that.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at