Times In-Depth: Kelly Is Comfortable In D.C. Representing His District

Erie Times-News

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly stepped outside St. Peter’s Catholic Church, three blocks from the Capitol, after an early morning service and enthusiastically called out to House Speaker John Boehner.

“Speaker!” he shouted.

One of the most powerful figures in Washington was out for an early morning walk, wearing shorts, a shirt and a red ball cap on a summerlike spring morning.

Kelly, of Butler, R-3rd Dist., pointed out another pedestrian: “That’s Joe Wilson.”

He’s the Republican congressman from South Carolina who gained national notoriety by shouting “You lie!” to President Barack Obama during a health-care address to Congress in 2009.

Minutes later, on the two-block drive from the church to Kelly’s office, the congressman yelled out the window.

“Pat,” he said, waving to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., then in the midst of the national gun-control firestorm with a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks to cover gun shows and sales over the Internet.

The self-described fast-talking Kelly, 64, who’s serving a second term that started in January, lives about 270 driving miles from his hometown of Butler when the House is in session.

But Kelly seems at home in the nation’s capital, where he and his wife, Vicki, maintain a $2,000-a-month, two-bedroom apartment — the norm for the high cost of living here.

Kelly, who represents about one-third of Erie County’s land mass, including the city of Erie, didn’t know a lot of people when he first arrived in Washington in January 2011. But he’s now on a first-name basis with colleagues and other elected officials, often referring to them by nicknames.

His separate references to “Jimmy,” for instance, mean Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and Congressman James Renacci, R-Ohio, who serves with Kelly on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing committee in the House.

Another politician that Kelly knows is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

After her testimony at a Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight hearing, Bachmann said that Kelly came to Washington as a “very humble individual” and “got to know as many people as he could. He hasn’t stood back as a wallflower.”

That’s apparent by his connections to high-ranking House members.

Kelly and four other members of Congress went to a private dinner with Boehner on April 10. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, called Kelly a “rock star” and political leader.

“The people of Pennsylvania have no stronger voice of common-sense, conservative reasoning,” Cantor told the Erie Times-News.

Bachmann, the one-time GOP presidential candidate, also called Kelly an effective, practical lawmaker who works well with both sides of the aisle.

Yet Kelly is quick to fire off news releases or appear on “Fox and Friends” — three times in the past two months alone — to rail against Obama on issues such as unanswered questions on the Benghazi terrorist attack and opposition to the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty that he said would threaten the Second Amendment, among other concerns.

Fox News is the medium of choice each morning on the 47-inch flat-screen television mounted on Kelly’s office wall.

“I am critical of his policies,” Kelly said during a break between votes on the House floor.

Kelly said the president’s drumbeat on issues such as the rich needing to pay their fair share of taxes is divisive.

“I don’t think he’s the president of the Democratic Party. I think he’s the president of the United States,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that Obama has a chance to build a legacy in his second term.

“I don’t see it yet,” he said, pointing to unfinished business such as reducing the deficit and getting more people back to work.

Kelly swept into office in the 2010 midterm elections as the GOP regained the House majority. Those wins came at the expense of a Democratic majority that fell victim to discontent among some voters over high unemployment, passage of the Affordable Care Act and federal stimulus spending.

In his first term, Kelly represented all of Erie County.

Now Erie County’s long-standing tradition of being entirely in the 3rd District has changed. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson represents two-thirds of Erie County — the eastern and southern portions — after the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature in 2011 approved statewide redistricting to reflect the loss of a congressional seat after the state’s population did not keep pace with growth in some other states.

State Republican lawmakers — as Democrats would have done for their party had they been in power — had another goal in mind: Making many of the districts safer for Republicans to win congressional seats, though Kelly said he actually gained a net 13,000 Democrats under the new map.

But the gerrymandering also put all of Butler County into the 3rd District, making it the new power base for what had been an Erie-centric district, and gave Thompson representation of a county that is about 200 miles from his home in Howard Township, Centre County.

The changes come amid a divided Congress, with Senate Democrats picking up two more seats in the 2012 election to tighten their control of the upper chamber. Republicans control the House, 232 to 200, with three seats vacant.

The divisions between Republicans and Democrats were evident at an April 10 meeting of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, debating legislation that would set priorities on debt payments should Congress and Obama fail to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling in May.

“Oddly, I feel like we’ve slipped into the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ Here we are, having the same old discussion that we’ve had over the last two years, and we’re just spinning our wheels,” said U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., a committee member.

“I would have thought that Congress would have learned its lesson regarding defaulting on our obligations after the summer of 2011, but apparently not,” she said, referring to a credit downgrade and a then-plunge in the stock market.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that the proposed GOP bill would pay debt to China first before the government would send out Social Security checks and pay other domestic obligations. “Our only legal option is to pay all of the bills in the order we receive them,” he said.

“This great nation will not default on its bills,” Lewis said.

Kelly said from the dais that it’s not a question of “whether we want to pay our bills or not. Of course we do.” But Kelly said the government must get its financial house in order.

“The American way is not to drive us into the ground due to reckless spending and irresponsible spending,” Kelly said. Social Security, Medicare and other government programs will be jeopardized if “we don’t fix this,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., the chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee, said that lawmakers want to see if the legislation could work, and for how long. “I mean, the fact of the matter is, we have to have an open and honest discussion on how we’re going to manage the debt and the deficit spending that this country is facing,” he said

Boustany said that Kelly, the owner and operator of Kelly Automotive in Butler, is a private business owner who understands “the challenges of running a business, and he brings real practical, real-world experience into this committee.”

Boustany said that Kelly speaks well for the constituency that he represents. Boustany was asked if Kelly — in such a partisan environment — speaks for all 705,687 constituents in his district. “Common sense is not a partisan issue. … Common sense basically outlines a path to solve problems and to face challenges,” Boustany said.

Democrats and Republicans recognize that the debt is a threat to the nation’s security, he said.

“We can have our partisan differences about how to tackle it, but to say we’re not going to have the conversation is wrong,” Boustany said.

A recent conversation between a small group of Democrats and Republicans at a dinner party was a welcome break from the partisanship that often divides the two parties, U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., said during a Tall Ships America reception at the Capitol on April 9.

The nonprofit will be in Erie to help with the Tall Ships Erie festival on Sept. 5-8.

But Hahn said that Democrats and Republicans don’t spend enough time together to work out problems. They attend their own caucus meetings, sit on opposite sides during committee hearings and then race home on weekends to be with their families, she said.

“It’s very much us against them back there,” she said.

Hahn said it was refreshing when the group of Democrats and Republicans, including herself and Kelly, were invited to the dinner party at the Washington residence of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

“He saw a need to find something off campus, relax and get to know each other,” she said.

Hahn, first sent to Congress in July 2011 in a special election, said that although Democrats and Republicans “see the world very differently,” they had an honest policy discussion at the dinner party about immigration reform, gun control and other key issues.

Hahn said that Kelly seems like somebody who could work with Democrats. But the California lawmaker said she has more hope in the 81-member freshmen class that took office in January.

“There is more of a desire to solve problems and find some common ground than in the previous freshmen class,” she said.

Kelly, though, said he doesn’t see himself as a Republican when he’s in Washington. “I think of myself as a representative of northwestern Pennsylvania when I’m here,” he said.

There are signs that Kelly works with Democratic politicians from Erie County on economic issues.

He and Thompson, along with Democratic and Republican elected officials from Erie County, are urging GE Transportation management and its union to keep as many jobs as possible at the Lawrence Park plant.

GE and its union are entering a 60-day bargaining process — prescribed by union contract — after GE announced plans to eliminate 950 jobs. GE would still be the county’s largest employer with a reduced payroll of 4,500.

County Executive Barry Grossman said he’s in frequent communication with Kelly over GE, the retention of jobs through Lord Corp.’s move from Erie to Summit Township and other issues.

“Mike’s a very gregarious guy who likes to sit down and have a sandwich and a beer with you, and I enjoy his company that way. We talk about things generally that involve the county, and it’s part of his district,” Grossman said.

During one of their talks, Grossman said he and Kelly realized that they played football against each other in high school when Grossman, who turned 67 this month, was a fullback for Strong Vincent High School and Kelly played defensive line at Butler High.

Kelly was recruited to play at Notre Dame, but repeated left-knee injuries in his freshman through junior years derailed his college playing career.

A plaque on Kelly’s desk says, “When you get there, remember where you came from.” Kelly said he follows that advice, and maintains a self-deprecating sense of humor. He laughed and shook his head when asked if he was upset over a March 4 piece in The New Yorker that described him as “heavyset.”

He said his weight actually has dropped from 315 to 265 pounds since he first arrived in Washington.

“You can get really bowled over here with ‘Congressman, let me get this for you, Congressman, let me get that for you,”‘ he said.

“If I was 26, I’d actually think I was a hot shot because of the way that people treat you,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons that Kelly said he attends the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Peter’s every day his congressional schedule allows.

“Try to keep yourself a little anchored. You don’t want to forget about what’s important,” he said.

“It’s quiet time. This is the calm before the storm.”

A few minutes later, Kelly began another day on Capitol Hill.

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