Thursday, December 29, 2011

Trading Jim Gerlach for Joe Pitts

By Tony Phyrillas

There's an old expression that goes something like this: "You can choose your friends but you can't choose your family." You can also decide to build a dream house, but you can't pick who your neighbors are going to be. In other words, just when you've settled on where you want to live, Jed Clampett and the Beverly Hillbillies could move in next door and there goes the neighborhood.

Gov. Tom Corbett left something under the tree of many Pennsylvania residents a few days before Christmas — something that many were not expecting or really needed.

In signing Senate Bill 1249 into law on Dec. 22, Corbett helped redraw Congressional boundaries for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania residents.

For the past 10 years, my congressman has been Republican Jim Gerlach, who has represented Pennsylvania's 6th District since it was created in 2000.

I've been happy with Gerlach and wasn't expecting to find myself in a new Congressional district, but you never know who's going to move in next door.

I've interviewed Gerlach several times over the past 10 years and he comes across as a very knowledgable and practical person. He is considered a moderate in Congressional circles, someone who doesn't always toe the party line. Gerlach has also built a reputation as a very responsive member of Congress who spends a lot of time in his home district. Whether it was a Veteran's Day parade or the dedication of a new bridge, Gerlach was there.

Perhaps it is his relative youth — 56 — or the fact that he would rather spend time with the people of Southeastern Pennsylvania instead of the political elites in Washington, D.C., but Gerlach has done a nice job of representing his constituents over the past decade, something even his political foes grudgingly admit.

I haven't paid too much attention to the redistricting process mandated by the Constitution every 10 years following the release of new Census figures because I wasn't expecting to lose Gerlach as my congressman.

I knew there would be some tinkering with his district because Republicans control both chambers in the state Legislature and they would work to make districts held by incumbent Republicans safer for their fellow GOP members. Because Pennsylvania's population growth is stagnant, the state was forced to drop one seat in the House, down from the 19 seats it held over the past decade. Politicians of both parties generally take care of themselves. They look for the easiest way to meet the requirements for cutting a seat. The best thing that could happen is for an incumbent to retire. That way, his or her district could be carved up among neighboring districts. Since that wasn't happening this year, the next target was the member of Congress with the least seniority. That meant Rep. Mark Critz had a big bull's-eye target on his back. Critz won a special election in 2010 to represent Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District after longtime Congressman John Murtha died in office earlier that year.

Critz will now have to run against another incumbent Democratic Congressman to keep his job.

You can complain all you want about the process of redistricting, but both parties play the same game. If Democrats controlled the state Legislature this year, you can bet they would combine two districts held by Republicans and force incumbents to run against each other.

I would prefer to keep Gerlach as my representative in Congress, but it wasn't my decision to part ways. I fell on the wrong side of the new political boundary of the 6th District. Overnight, I moved into a new Congressional district and didn't even get a chance to pack. It's not the first time it's happened. Before Gerlach, my congressman was Democrat Tim Holden and before that, it was Democrat Gus Yatron.

On Dec. 21, I lived in the 6th District. On Dec. 22, with Corbett's signature, I was moved into the 16th District, which brings me to Congressman Joe Pitts.

Pitts is 72 and has been in Congress since January 1997. He is considered one of the most conservative members in the House and has been recognized by conservative groups as one of the most reliable votes in Congress on fiscal and social issues. The Republican has earned 100% ratings from the American Conservative Union, the Christian Coalition and various taxpayer groups.

Pitts is also one of the few members of Congress who refuses to seek pork barrel funding for projects in his home district.

I've never met Pitts and he doesn't have Gerlach's track record of pressing the flesh in his home district, but his voting record in Congress is impressive. It's like a new neighbor moving in next door. It appears Pitts will be my Congressman until he retires from Congress, so I better get used to my new neighbor.

Tony Phyrillas is the city editor of The Mercury and writes about politics. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas. You can also read his blog Talking Politics at

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