Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Jim Gerlach's costly clerical error

Rep. Jim Gerlach, the Southeastern Pennsylvania congressman who was one of the few bright spots for Republicans in November 2006, has taken a few hits lately. His biggest political wound is self-inflicted.

Gerlach announced Wednesday afternoon that the Federal Election Commission has fined him $120,000 for campaign finance reporting irregularities. That's the last thing a man who has barely won 51 percent of the vote in his district last year needs to tell the world about.

Gerlach has struggled to win election to the 6th Congressional District seat in each of his three runs for the office in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

His last two contests were against Main Line lawyer Lois Murphy, who came within a few thousand votes of unseating Gerlach in both 2004 and 2006.

Murphy attacked Gerlach about campaign finances pretty hard last year, but the issue never resonated with voters. The latest FEC fine is more ammunition against Gerlach for his 2008 opponent, whether it be Murphy or someone else.

Gerlach over-reported more than $2 million in contributions in 2004 and 2005, and misreported about $8,900 in refunded contributions in another report, the FEC announced Wednesday. His campaign also failed to itemize contributor information in its 2004 year-end report, the agency said.

Gerlach said the FEC fine is the result of "clerical errors" that were reported more than 17 months ago. Not sure how his explanation will play. Scandals have a long shelf-life in politics.

"At the end of the day, the campaign did make clerical errors. It is my campaign and I accept responsibility," Gerlach said. "We are voluntarily putting this clerical nightmare behind us and moving on."

Even before the news of the $120,000 fine surfaced, Gerlach was smarting from recent news accounts that he is considered vulnerable when he seeks re-election in 2008.

Josh Drobnyk, who works in the Washington Bureau of the Allentown Morning Call, wrote a story last week listing Gerlach and fellow GOP Rep. Charlie Dent among the 36 House Republicans the White House considers the most vulnerable GOP incumbents heading into the 2008 elections.

Republicans lost control of the House in 2006 and any hope of regaining the majority means they need to keep all 36 "vulnerable" seats while going after the freshman class of Democrats swept into office by the anti-Iraq, anti-Bush wave last November.

Gerlach was supposed to finally breathe easy after beating back Lois Murphy in 2006. Voters had two chances to elect Murphy and passed on the far left candidate both times. Her best shot to beat Gerlach was 2006, but she blew it. She had unlimited access to money, full support of the national Democratic Party machine and the anti-Bush sentiment running through the country.

It's unlikely Murphy will come back for a third shot against Gerlach in 2008 and there aren't too many other Democratic names who could give Gerlach a serious run.

Dent wasn't suppose to be vulnerable, but he won just 54 percent of the vote against an unknown and underfunded Democrat named Charles Dertinger. That puts Dent on the endangered list for 2008.

The freshman class of Democratic congressmen from Pennsylvania who should worry about holding on to their seats in 2008 include Patrick Murphy, in Bucks County's 8th District; Joe Sestak in Delaware County's 7th District; Chris Carney in the 10th District; and Jason Altmire in the 4th District.

Republicans could easily win back all four of those seats, especially since the Democrats haven't exactly set the world in fire during their first 100 days in control of Washington, D.C.

Other than raising the minimum wage and setting a date for U.S. surrender in Iraq, the Democrats don't have much to show for their majority control of Congress.

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