John L. Micek, 5/24/2016 [Archive]

The Last Sane Republican in Washington

By John L. Micek

Is Congressman Charlie Dent the last sane man in Washington?

The Pennsylvania Republican, who was in the vanguard of a fight on the House floor last week over a measure that would have cemented workplace protections for LGBT workers, doesn't think so.

But at a time when Donald Trump has fractured the Republican base with harsh talk about women, minorities and Muslims, Dent seems the rarest of all creatures:

He's an affable, moderate Republican who remembers that the future of his party lies not with alienating people, but expanding its base to those who might be scared off by the firebrand conservatives in its midst.

"The country is evolving demographically and socially. Maybe my actions are a bit of a reflection of that phenomenon," he said. "My view is that the party needs to be a little less focused on some of these hot-button social issues that I don't believe help us expand our coalition."

Dent, 55, and a four-term incumbent, hails from Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional District, which is anchored by Allentown. (Yes, the one Billy Joel famously sang about).

The recovering steel town, now home its own gleaming, minor-league hockey stadium, is about 40 minutes west of the New Jersey state line and an hour north of Philadelphia.

While the suburbs tend to skew Republican, Allentown remains resolutely blue-collar Democrat. It also boasts a burgeoning Hispanic population that is also reliably Democratic.

President Barack Obama carried Dent's district by 13 percentage points in 2008.

After being redrawn in 2010 to add more Republicans, Mitt Romney narrowly carried Dent's district in 2012. Dent suspects Obama would've won by 5 to 6 percentage points if the district had remained unchanged.

As was the case when he represented the region in the Pennsylvania state Senate, Dent remains a good fit for its fiscally conservative, but socially moderate voters.

"A lot of voters are looking for people who can bridge the ever-widening [partisan] divide," Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania Republican political consultant, said. "He's a good guy - even those who disagree with him philosophically admire and respect him as a person."

During his time in Washington, Dent has slowly and resolutely built his profile. As his party swerved further to the right, he started showing up more often on cable news shows as the GOP's voice of reason. He's now chairman of a subcommittee of the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

And that's how Dent found himself the Republican face of last week's fight over language that would have amended a military construction and veteran's affairs spending bill to uphold the Obama administration's executive order banning discrimination against LGBT employees by federal contractors.

The bill failed on a 212-213 vote, as Republican leaders enforced loyalty amid Democratic shouts of "Shame! Shame!"

The vote showed that Dent is "a thinking Republican - that's all we've ever asked for," said Ted Martin, a lobbyist for the advocacy group EqualityPA said. "And that's all the American people are asking for too."

And that may be at least part of the reason that Dent (who formerly backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich) has found himself unable to hitch his fortunes to the Trump juggernaut.

Pennsylvania is Ground Zero for Trump, where presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has both family ties and a broad base of support.

With a nearly 1-million voter registration edge, Pennsylvania has gone blue in every presidential cycle since President George H.W. Bush.

Yet, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton and Trump in a statistical dead heat in the Keystone State, putting Pennsylvania back in play.

"I guess anything is possible - my immediate reaction is that if his numbers are bad as they are among Hispanics and women, I'm not sure I see a path," Dent said of the prospect of a Trump win in his home state in November.

"The good news for Donald is that Hillary also has sky high unfavorables. That keeps him in the game - the bigger question is where does Trump win where Mitt Romney did not?"

And while some have predicted an irreparable Republican schism from Trump's ascension, Dent isn't ready to go there — yet.

"There could be a political realignment going on under our feet," he mused. "I'm not saying the R Party is going the way of the Whigs. I don't see that. I'm not that gloomy about it."

The response is vintage Dent — thoughtful and moderate. It might get him excluded in Donald Trump's America.

On the other hand, it might just get him promoted.

——

©Copyright 2016 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at jmicek@pennlive.com.

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