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A Short History of the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania

For a history in a nutshell of the Congressional representation of the Fifteenth Congressional District of Pennsylvania after World War II, take a look at the documentary “Berkeley in the 60’s” by First Run Features, available through AK Press. Early on, you will see Representative Francis “Tad” Walters, the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) screeching at the threats presented by Communism, as represented by the nascent student movement. Tad represented this District for the last ten years of his 30 year Congressional career, from 1953 to 1963 (he was elected first to the 21st, then the 20th), and never felt a breath of protest from his electorate for his stunted philosophy.

Tad was followed by Fred Rooney, a Democrat who served 8 terms, from 1963-1978. He had a lackadaisacal approach to the electorate and an allegiance to Bethlehem Steel, then in its heyday. This district was the home of this ponderous juggernaut, the de facto economic and political boss of the region. I remember sitting in Fred’s office with a group asking for support for the Rhodesian boycott, and Fred, in our presence, called The Steel for guidance on the issue.

Fred lost interest in Congress and in the pick and shovel work of the eternal campaign and was beaten in 1978 by Don Ritter, a Republican who quickly became a key Congressional supporter of the mujahaddin, and Reagan. Don was only slightly right of Tad Walters. These were the days when the fight against nuclear power was at its height. Our local anti-nuclear lobby met with him on various occasions. His political analysis of the nuclear industry included the “joke” about more people dying in the back of Ted Kennedy’s car than have died from nuclear power. He once told me that caffeine and plutonium were of equivalent danger when ingested. He is a scientist. Don maintained through the years his support for the insurgents of Afghanistan. After he was defeated in 1992 by Paul McHale, he became the Chairman of the Afghanistan Foundation. His former foreign policy adviser, Philip S. Smith, is a lobbyist for the Afghan Northern Alliance Junbish Party and reports to Rashid Dostum, the warlord of North Afghanistan.

Paul McHale, Democrat, is a Marine and a lawyer. During his tenure, a visit to the Congressional office was like a tour of a museum of combat. A huge polished sword hung on the wall, surrounded by certificates of honor and commendation of dizzying variety. Paul was eager for combat and actually served during the first Gulf War. He always regretted not getting his full taste of Vietnam War action, and was only able to enter the region as the last troops were evacuating. Like Kerry, he not only supported the policy of war, he was willing to fight. Paul was on a path to Secretary of the Navy while Clinton ruled, but stumbled on Monica. He could not accept Clinton’s lies and infidelity, supported impeachment, and thereby ended his career in the Cabinet. He did not run in 1998.

The position was filled in 1998 by Pat Toomey, an international banker, a restaurant owner, a free trade, anti-choice Republican with a glib, non-combative manner. He maintained the District firmly in the tradition of Tad, supporting the far-right program of free trade at any human cost. He left office in 2004, and ran for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat, claiming that the aged Senator had lost touch with his conservative roots. He narrowly lost the primary to Arlen and now maintains his political edge as the President of the group that supported his run against Arlen, the “Club for Growth”. The Club’s current project is a TV ad campaign urging recalcitrant Republicans to support personal accounts as a solution to the Social Security “crisis”.

Republican Charles Dent holds the seat now. He won it over Joe Driscoll, an import who barely established his legal residency before the election. Charles is pleased to be part of the committee that oversees steroid abuse in Major League Baseball. He is worried about our homeland security, and supports free trade. He was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Terri Schiavo intervention, for which he is taking a lot of heat from his right wing base. He seems pleasant enough, and may not be far enough right to hold the seat for long.

The 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania is part of a region with arguably the richest farmland in the world. It had an industrial working-class population, comprised of immigrants from a dozen European and Latin American populations, which mixed with the rural, farming resident population. Today, it is rapidly being overrun with tract development, parking lots and strip malls. The local political structure is uniformly of the Greed Party, as local zoning boards, school boards, Mayors, Councils, and County Executives sell out to the influx of developer money. The political vision of the Governor, Ed Rendell, is to position a slot machine within easy reach of any willing arm in order to provide some relief to the property taxpayers. It is a trade of one regressive tax for another, from a tax based on real estate to the more predatory tax of institutionalized State-encouraged gambling. State Representatives are now encouraging local school boards to accept this legalized graft and give up the right to control their own taxing power.

The failure of government on the federal, local and state levels are sweeping this region into the characterless, super-consumptive suburbs of Philadelphia and New York, with congested roads, ever more highways, poorly constructed suburban develpments and busted out, poverty-stricken, inner cities. Tad would be pleased there is hardly a whiff of the left in the political air.

JOE DeRAYMOND, a resident of the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at: jderaymond@enter.net