U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta’s trajectory in public office began with the curve ball.
The year: 1978. Barletta, then a Bloomsburg University senior, walked onto a Cincinnati Reds tryouts, hopeful of a future as an outfielder in the major leagues. A major handicap got in the way.
“I couldn’t hit a curve ball,” he said. “They found out.”
Barletta returned home to Hazleton to work in the family construction business. He scraped money together and launched a small roadway line-painting business.
That business grew into one of the largest road-painting businesses in the state, and Barletta entered politics.
In an overwhelmingly Democratic region, Barletta, a Republican, was elected mayor of Hazleton three times.
The business of running a rusting town of 25,000 would have kept Barletta under the radar, except for what he did in 2006. Barletta stood up to his party — and President George W. Bush — enacting tough ordinances targeting illegal immigrants.
Barletta made the rounds on “60 Minutes” and Fox News Netowrk, defending his ordinances from attacks that they — and he — were anti-immigrant, even anti-Latino.
Barletta lost a 2008 bid for Congress but in 2010 he rode the GOP wave into the House of Representatives, beating out 13-term Democratic incumbent Paul Kanjorski. With an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, however, Barletta’s seat seemed vulnerable.
That changed last year when Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law the General Assembly’s redistricting plan, which carved an 11th Congressional District that skewed favorably Republican. The districts span nine counties across nearly 200 miles, from Wyoming County to the western reaches of Cumberland County.
Suddenly, the man whose dealings seemed of minor consequence to the midstate could have a stake in the economic vitality of swaths of Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties.
Barletta, who is seeking re-election in November, will go up against one of two Democratic challengers: Gene Stilp, the political activist who garnered a high profile with a crusade against the Legislative pay raise (he employed the inflatable pink pig), or Bill Vinsko, a Wilkes-Barre solicitor.
Stilp and Vinsko face off in the April primary.
For a man who is used to running a business and wielding executive power, Barletta is frustrated in Washington.
He carries a laminated card of the 29 jobs bills he said the House has passed since 2010 and have not come to a vote in the Senate.
“Even if you didn’t agree with everything the American people want to see debate,” Barletta said. “They want to see us find common ground and get something done.”
Barletta toes the line on GOP fiscal policies, voting for a balanced budget amendment, pushing for a Medicare overhaul and privatization of Social Security.
But he still bucks his party.
Last year, he assembled a caucus on illegal immigration comprised of freshmen congressmen. Their legislation prohibits so-called sanctuary cities from receiving federal dollars.
“People say that if you stand up against illegal immigration you’re not going to get the Latino vote,” Barletta said. “You gotta stand up for what’s right.”
Barletta earned the scorn of the tea party after he cosponsored a tax-credit bill that favors cars that run on alternative fuels, including natural gas.
A proponent for foreign oil independence, Barletta said the natural-gas reserves that lay underneath part of the 11th District will be critical to a domestic-energy program.
“Marcellus Shale is going to be a game changer for Pennsylvania as far as jobs employment and what it will bring to domestic energy policy,” he said.
Partisan attacks paint Barletta as extremeist.
MoveOn.org, a liberal organization, singled him out when he supported Medicare reform. After Barletta endorsed Rick Santorum, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accused him of taking “an extreme position against the best interests of Pennsylvania seniors,” with his stance on Medicare reform.
“I think Barletta is a one-issue guy. All he cares about is illegal immigration,” said Marilyn Levin, chairwoman of the Dauphin County Democratic Committee. “While we don’t support illegal immigration, no one does, the district now contains a large agriculture area and unfortunately, it’s very tough to get Americans to want to pick fruit or potatoes, whatever the crop. I think he’s a one-issue guy, and he’s on the wrong side of that issue.”
Barletta said his stance on illegal immigration is fueled by a desire to protect American workers.
That rhetoric comes across as hostile to Jake Sternberger, president of the Dickinson College Democrats.
“It’s like a venomous dislike of Hispanics,” he said.
Cumberland County, particularly Carlisle, has a growing Hispanic population, but the issue of illegal immigration doesn’t resonate with that community, Sternberger said.
“I’ve never heard Congressman Platts talk about it, ever,” he said. “It may resonate in Luzerne or Wyoming counties, but I can tell you in Cumberland County it’s not an issue.”
Barletta said he is less partisan than most GOP members. He points to GovTrack.com, a nonpartisan political website, that rates him a moderate Republican.
After last year’s floods in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, Barletta supported a bill that provides low interest loans for small businesses in major disaster areas. He has supported Community Development Block Grants along with Democratic colleagues and sponsored an amendment to the bipartisan House highway bill with Illinois Democrat Rep. Jerry Costello.
“I never take my mayor’s hat off when I go to the floor and fight for things like Community Development Block Grants and LIHEAP (aid to help the poor pay heating bills) and grants for cops and firemen,” Barletta said.
If Barletta is a moderate, it’s only in comparison to others, Sternberger said.
“Look at the class he was elected with,” he said. “He was elected in 2010, one of the most conservative crops the GOP has seen in decades.”
The student group is accustomed to working with Republicans, particularly U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, who is not seeking re-election, and state Rep. Stephen Bloom, of Cumberland County.
“It’s not that we’re completely partisan. It’s just Barletta has a particularly terrifying brand of conservatism,” Sternberger said.
‘Needs to be a balance’
Barletta, a Catholic, was among Congressional Republicans who railed against the contraception and abortion components of the Affordable Health Care Law.
“I think what the Republican party has done is stir up the Democratic base — Democratic women,” Levin said. “They’ve clearly overstepped their bounds.”
Barletta said parts of the legislation work but he hopes the Supreme Court will strike the health-reform law.
“I see that as a growing problem in Washington with the federal government mandating what we must buy and sell and give away,” Barletta said.
Barletta said he is unwilling to jeapordize national security with defense cuts.
With the federal government considering another round of cuts to military installations, Barletta said he will argue to keep the Army War College and the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center out of bounds.
And with swaths of Wyoming and Carbon counties under the stewardship of the 11th Congressional District, the natural gas industry interests of the Marcellus Shale undoubtedly plays a role in Washington.
“There needs to be a balance,” Barletta said. “We always want to protect our environment, our air and water. That should always be a concern whenever we are doing drilling or exploring for energy, however, we shouldn’t be punitive.”
Barletta last year voted for a bill that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of many of its powers over states and return a considerable saying on the health of waterways to states.
“I believe the EPA has gone out of control to the point where they’ve literally become punitive and have stopped many businesses because of their overreach,” Barletta said.
The bill has moved to the Senate.
Making a difference
Barletta has already earned the scorn of some of his constituents. Last year, he had suspend his public forums after hecklers, protesting his Medicare stance, disrupted the sessions.
Others see him well poised to represent the new district.
“As far as I can tell he is a good fit for the district,” said Karen Best, chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee. “I’m not so sure he’s as much a hardliner as you might think. I like to think we are more moderate here in Cumberland County but there is a constituency in the western part of county that is very ultra conservative. It’s a very diverse county, politically, socially and economically.”
Best said Barletta will resonate with the constituency.
“I think he’s looked on as somebody who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, was a successful businessman who ran to beat an overwhelming Democratic registration to become mayor of Hazleton and then won a seat in Congress,” she said. “It is a story that would sell a novel somewhere. I think he probably has a future if he’s interested in that.”
Six years ago, a 3-to-2 Democratic to Republican council approved Barletta’s ordinances that penalized businesses who hired illegal immigrants and landlords who rented to them. After being struck down by a federal court, the ordinances await further hearing in a circuit court.
“If you’re honest enough to come forward and tell it like it is, and people believe you and they do it and it works out the way you said it would, it gets easier,” said Hazleton Mayor Joe Yannuzzi. “They know there was no hidden agenda. That’s important in politics.”
Yannuzzi describes Barletta as a Yankees and fantasy football fan and a family man.
Barletta and wife Mary Grace have four daughters.
“He’s the kind of guy you want to be around and have a beer with,” Yannuzzi said.
Barletta vowed to stay out of national politics after the failed 2008 bid.
He was thrown a curve ball: grandson Gabriel Louis was born.
The issues of Medicare, the national debt and health care suddenly grew compelling to Barletta.
“If I can make a difference, and I believe one person can,” Barletta starts out, about to explain his ambitions, “I don’t look at anything except what I have to fix right now.”