Times In-Depth: Thompson Tackles Big Issues In A Big District

Erie Times-News

Congressman Glenn Thompson in January took down the framed photograph of the stadium in Williamsport where the Little League World Series is played.

That photo had been on a wall of his congressional office, but it’s now in storage. Thompson no longer represents that city in Lycoming County.

Now a limited-edition shadowbox containing a U.S. Brig Niagara print and an authentic piece from the ship hangs on one of the walls.

The change in office furnishings is symbolic of the three-term congressman’s sprawling, rural district that moved farther west in January as he picked up two thirds of Erie County’s land mass, in the eastern and southern parts of the county.

The shadowbox went up on the wall after his election to represent a vast, remapped district that takes in all or parts of 16 counties and 23 percent of the state’s land mass.

The concerns for Thompson, 53, are now as diverse as trying to head off job losses at GE Transportation near urban Erie and questioning the U.S. Forest Service’s limited timbering practices and other management practices in the Allegheny National Forest.

Without a say from Thompson, the Pennsylvania Legislature in December 2011 redrew the state’s congressional boundaries to reflect the loss of a U.S. House seat in the state.

But Thompson, R-5th Dist., said he’s happy to represent Erie County, which is about 200 miles from his home in Howard Township, Centre County.

In Howard Township, in Washington and just about everywhere else, Thompson is known informally as “GT,” the nickname that his parents gave him.

“The people who are watching on C-SPAN are probably wondering who ‘GT’ is,” he said.

By either name, Thompson shares representation of Erie County with U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, of Butler, R-3rd Dist.

Kelly represents one third of the county’s land mass, including the city of Erie and western Erie County. Thompson’s new territory includes nine of 24 voting districts in Millcreek Township, the county’s second most-populous community with more than 50,000 residents.

Reflecting the new reality, Michael Rauworth, volunteer chairman of Tall Ships America, introduced Thompson this way during the nonprofit’s April 9 reception at the Capitol: “It’s a place so nice, it has to be represented twice.” Representatives from Tall Ships America, whose mission includes the promotion of sail training to the public, will be in Erie to help with the Tall Ships Erie Festival on Sept. 5-8.

Critics have argued that Erie County’s clout is diluted in Washington with two congressmen, while Kelly, Thompson and others say it increases the county’s representation in Congress, in its committees and subcommittees.

“It’s twice the opportunity for the county. We now have two votes (in Congress),” Thompson said.

Former Congressman Phil English, R-Erie, who by himself represented the 3rd District for 14 years until losing the 2008 election, said it’s typical for counties to be split between or among congressional districts.

He said that Erie County wasn’t split when he served in Congress because of its location in the far northwestern corner of the state and his intervention with state lawmakers to keep the county intact.

“Neither Glenn Thompson nor Mike Kelly actively advocated for Glenn Thompson to move into Erie County, but the (lawmakers) calling the shots were in the state Legislature and typically Pittsburgh-based,” he said.

English said that Erie won’t get short shrift.

“I think it’s fair to say that Erie County is large enough in both of those congressional districts that neither of them can ignore us and both of them, I think, recognize that Erie County is a unique community,” English said.

Though Thompson represents the largest congressional district in the state and arguably its most rural, the congressman said he enjoys traveling throughout the district and going to Washington.

“When I think that my predecessors did the same thing, but they did it by horseback — I have no complaints,” Thompson said.

When Thompson is not in Erie, he makes a closer connection by sending tweets to his more than 6,300 Twitter followers, or by sending Rick Sollman, a full-time field representative in Erie County, to events. The closest district office is in Titusville.

The needs of the district are “a moving target,” Thompson said, with the potential loss of 950 jobs at GE Transportation at the top of the current list.

It was another important matter about three weeks ago. Thompson revamped part of his district schedule to attend the viewing and funeral for Pfc. Josh Martino, a 19-year-old from DuBois who was among seven Marines killed in an accidental mortar shell explosion during a desert training exercise in Nevada.

“I felt it was my place to be in DuBois with the family,” said Thompson, whose son, Logan, and daughter-in-law, Carley, are both U.S. Army intelligence sergeants in Afghanistan.

While Thompson reaches out to constituents far from divisive Washington, the congressman — a former therapist, rehabilitation services manager and nursing-home administrator — said he also reaches out to Democrats on matters that don’t compromise his conservative principles on fiscal and social issues.

One of those principles involves his support for Second Amendent rights, and his roots for gun rights run deep. Thompson worked at his father’s sporting goods store, which sold guns, and his daughter-in-law, Katie Thompson, had been an NRA-certified shooting sports instructor for a Boy Scout Camp.

Both Thompson’s daughter-in-law and his son, Parker Thompson, are now co-pastors of a church in Iowa.

“Some hills I’m not going to climb, but on most issues out there we can find common ground,” Thompson said.

One example was his bill that would have corrected what he considered a flaw in an education funding formula, under the No Child Left Behind legislation, that diverts money from school districts with higher poverty rates to more populous school districts regardless of their poverty rates, Thompson said.

“The money should follow the children,” he said.

Thompson said that all school districts in Erie County would have benefitted from the amendment. “I’m a recovering school board member. I’m not going to take a school district over a cliff,” he said.

But despite bipartisan cosponsorship of the bill, it failed in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, on which Thompson sits.

“I always knew that politics will trump good policy. I never knew politics would trump children,” said Thompson, who plans this session to reintroduce the bill that was defeated in February 2012.

More promising is Thompson’s bipartisan bill, introduced this month, that he is co-sponsoring with U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa. The proposal would eliminate the five-month period in which disabled military members must wait to get their Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

“He asked me to be the lead Democratic co-sponsor on it,” Loebsack said outside the House floor.

“We don’t have a lot of bipartisan support for a lot of the big things — but where we can try, we ought to do that. Maybe we can start here and do some something bigger later,” he said.

Asked if their constituents are tired of partisan fighting, Loebsack said, “Tired of it? You’re being diplomatic. They’re incredibly fed up with it,” Loebsack said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., whose sprawling district in north-central and northeastern Pennsylvania is second only in size to Thompson’s district in the state, said that he and Thompson are unwavering in their support of issues such as the Second Amendment and their opposition to abortion.

But he said there can be compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues and other concerns.

“I’d rather walk away from the table with half of a loaf of bread than no loaf at all,” Marino said.

Yet a bipartisan spirit wasn’t on display April 11 when Thompson sat on a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, during which U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell was grilled by House Republicans on the management of federally owned forest lands.

Republicans were upset over President Barack Obama’s budget for the Forest Service, which they said called for a 10 percent increase in land acquisition and a 15 percent decrease in timber operations. Tidwell testified to the committee that the budget request is a balanced approach between acquisition and forest management.

“If they’re burning, there’s nothing to manage,” U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., told Tidwell.

GOP committee members said a lack of forest management has resulted in several problems, including a decline in timber production that costs tens of thousands of jobs and unhealthy forests that are susceptible to wildfires and bug infestation.

“I feel sorry you have to stop before us today to tote the water for an administration that just doesn’t get it. I don’t know what they pay you, but it’s not enough,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Sutherland, R-Fla.

Thompson — who sent out at least one tweet during the hearing — was more charitable in his remarks to Tidwell.

He told the chief that he had a lot of respect for him. But Thompson said it seemed that “radical environmentalists who lawyer up” have more influence over residents who live near the Allegheny National Forest when both groups make public comments to the Forest Service.

Tidwell said that comments from one group cannot be weighed more heavily over another’s. “Congressman, these are national forests,” he said.

Thompson also said that the amount of timbering from a privately owned 125,000-acre property, adjacent to the Allegheny National Forest, is equal to the total amount timbered from the 513,000-acre publicly owned forest.

This marks Thompson’s fifth year in Congress, but he still gets a charge out of seeing the Capitol building each day when he walks the 10 minutes from the apartment that he, his wife, Penny, and their dog, Truman, share in southeastern Washington

“The first thing I see is the Capitol in the morning. It still kind of makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,” he said.

“It’s a reminder that this is a privilege and a responsibility,” he said.

What isn’t so much of a privilege are the rent payments of $1,450 a month for a 700-square-foot basement apartment. “I never paid so much for so little in my life,” Thompson said.

Thompson made his comments outside the Capitol, after casting votes in the House chamber.

But the congressman’s day wasn’t quite over.

Thompson returned a telephone call to a GE Transportation employee at 5:16 p.m. on April 11. The employee expressed concern about the company’s plan, announced two days earlier, to eliminate 950 union jobs at the Lawrence Park Township plant.

“I was very disappointed when I got that call from GE. I did not see that coming,” Thompson said over the phone.

The employee, whom Thompson did not identify, had invited the congressman to a rally outside the plant, but Thompson said he would be in Washington, D.C., to cast votes with the House in session.

But Thompson pledged to meet with the man and anyone else about the GE situation on another trip to Lawrence Park — a community far removed from the concerns in the Allegheny National Forest.

Yet, at least for now, Thompson called the situation at GE the “No. 1 need back home.”

For Thompson, “back home” now includes a four-hour drive from Howard Township to the GE plant gates.

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