PoliticsPA Sits Down With Former Congressman Phil English

On Sept. 28, PoliticsPA’s Louis Jacobson caught up with former Erie-area Congressman Phil English, a Republican, for a wide-ranging conversation about the national and statewide outlook for Election Day. English was elected to the House during the Republican wave election of 1994 and later lost his seat to current Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper in the Democratic wave election of 2008.  He served the National Republican Congressional Committee as Chair of Incumbent Retention during ’01-’02, and ’03-’04, as well as Chair of the NRCC Campaign Audit Team.  He also chaired the effort on challenger races for the NRCC during the ’06 election cycle.  Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

PoliticsPA: How does the 2010 election compare to the two big wave elections of 1994 and 2006?

English: I think 2010 represents a deeper and more fundamental wave than we saw in 1994 or 2006. In 1994, there was dissatisfaction with the party in the White House, but the economy was much better, and the dissatisfaction was not nearly as focused.

The big reality about the 2010 election which makes it a particularly strong wave is that it’s being driven by high unemployment figures and economic insecurity. This is not a new phenomenon for Pennsylvania, especially western Pennsylvania, but it’s particularly strong today.

I’d say that the best analogy is actually with the 1982 election, which occurred during the only time since the Great Depression that unemployment was over 10 pct. I think that election was substantially shaped by those economic realities. Even though unemployment is not quite as high this year, I think it’s having a more profound effect on public opinion.

It’s part of an economic crisis that has stretched back three years in Pennsylvania. There’s a growing sense that this is a downturn that has caused permanent damage to the state’s economy and the standard of living for working-class people. And it comes at a particularly inopportune time for a party that controls the White House, Congress and the governorship.

PoliticsPA: How well do you think Democratic incumbents are preparing for the wave they face?

English: I see a variety of strategies. A couple Democratic members of the delegation, like Jason Altmire and Tim Holden have positioned themselves very well, drawing out some of their differences with the administration.

On the other hand, I think this year Republicans have run an extraordinary selection of candidates in the state. Some of them started late, so they have resource challenges, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many seats in play in the state.

It’s worth noting that in the wave of 1994, the Republicans only elected two freshmen in the state, and only one of them, Jon Fox, knocked off a Democratic incumbent, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. I do believe there’s evidence that this wave may have a bigger impact.

PoliticsPA: What are your predictions for Republican gains in the House?

English: I am a new believer. I have been very conservative in my estimates of Republican pickups. But I now believe the Republicans will pick up 45 to 55 seats in the House and are likely to pick up seven to nine, and conceivably 10, seats in the Senate.

PoliticsPA: Do you envision tensions between Tea Party-style Republicans and more establishment Republicans if the party does take over Congress?

English: I think the Republicans will come into a majority of the House united behind a broad, limited-government mandate, and moderate Republicans will probably be pushing more of the economic libertarian side of the agenda.

Naturally there will be tensions in what will be a very diverse caucus. But in 1994 we were united behind the Contract with America. Our biggest problem was not unity in the house — it was overcoming the fact that the Senate had not run on the same platform.

This time, I see Republican candidates in the Senate running on a similar array of issues as the House. So I think the challenge for the Republicans will be not be getting things through the House. The party will pass a robust agenda if they have a significant margin in the House.

My sense is that the next two years will be a time of great controversy, but potentially some creativity. If the Democrats internalize the results of their election losses and find an alliance with the center of the Republican Party, a lot could get done.

I look into my crystal ball and see a lot of pent-up energy being expended. It will be interesting to see what direction it’s expended in.

PoliticsPA: But do you sense a willingness to cooperate with the president, given that the 2012 election is coming up?

English: I think 2012 will be looming across the next Congress, and that will make cooperation difficult. But I think the real issue is whether the American public holds their elected representatives’ feet to the fire and insists that the White House and Congress find common ground. My sense is that public patience with slow growth and economic stagnation is gone. Public tolerance of high deficits is gone. The opportunity is to find pro-growth solutions that don’t explode the budget, such as tax reform. I think the administration has laid a pretty good groundwork for tax reform to move forward.

My feeling, ultimately, is that cooperation is going to be dictated by whether the leadership of Congress, however it shakes out, will require both sides to make major compromises.

It will be a time when it will be very easy for things to break down. At the same time, I do think that if this is an unproductive Congress and if the White House is unwilling to come to the table, you will have a huge public reaction again in two years.

PoliticsPA: What’s your guess specifically on Pennsylvania?

It’s hard to read, but I think the Republicans will pick up four seats in the House delegation, give or take one or two. I don’t want to predict which ones they are likely to be.

PoliticsPA: Do you think it will be a genuinely realigning election?

English: This could be a realignment, but only if Congress is able to deliver, and if people see positive results. I think that if gridlock occurs, whoever takes the blame for the gridlock will bear a very heavy price if the economy continues to stagnate.

My sense is that part of the realignment could be at the state level. The ability of the next governor to navigate the big financial challenges will have a direct impact on the politics of Pennsylvania. And I think that will represent a big opportunity to make a big change in Pennsylvania politics. This could be the biggest opportunity for a major realignment since 1994, or conceivably back to 1978 and the win by Richard Thornburgh.

PoliticsPA: At the risk of asking you to help the Democrats, what advice would you give to an incumbent facing a wave like this?

I think the Democrats need to get back to basics and offer positive solutions. They need to talk about some of the things they have done. Pick out a couple of accomplishments and then basically offer to carry the message back to Washington that the middle class is seeing its economic prospects disappear.

I think the opportunity would be for the Democrats to offer some concrete solutions and also separate themselves from what the public feels has failed in Washington.

The most important thing, and it’s a big challenge, is that incumbents need to show that they understand the need to get the economy growing again. I think that the more the Democrats get bogged down in promoting class warfare, the worse it is for them.

At a time when politics is very divisive and a candidate sees that they’re behind, the tendency is to panic and they resort to brass-knuckled politics. Unfortunately, that converts into advertising messages that tend to make people even more sour at a time like this.

The candidates that will survive are the ones who are creative about how they deliver a positive message and distance themselves from the Washington and Harrisburg status quo.

PoliticsPA: What’s your take on the contest in your old district?

English: I think it’s an extremely competitive race. I’ve known Mike Kelly for years. He’s been a great local leader and problem solver. A guy who understands business and roll-up-your sleeves positive solutions. A guy who knows that raising taxes in the middle of a recession will have negative consequences.

Mike Kelly is a guy who has built a career selling Chevys to steelworkers. He’s a marvelous interlocutor for articulating a new, positive Republican message. I think Mike is a great local campaigner and will be very, very tough.

PoliticsPA: What about Dahlkemper?

English: I think she is going to have a large challenge, because she has consistently voted with her party leadership, and she will face a criticism that I had to face in the House, that she’s voting too often with the party leadership in ways that people may feel is not positive for the district.

Now, this is a natural attack, and because of her high partisan voting, I think she’s particularly vulnerable. It would be natural for her to do what she seems to be doing in her messages — to reclaim the mantle of an independent and a citizen politician. But after two years, I think she will have to do a lot of distancing herself from this Congress.

The other challenge for her, another natural challenge, is that there’s been a lot going on in Washington, so she hasn’t been as visible in the district as I was or as (then-Republican Rep.) Tom Ridge was before me.

It’s meant that she has not been as exposed to the public. Fairly or not, she faces the problem that she could be seen as being out of touch.

In the end, she will have a real challenge explaining her vote to cut Medicare by $500 million, especially with deep cuts in the Medicare Advantage program. Forty percent of the seniors in our state use Medicare Advantage. It’s an incredibly deep cut, and she will be challenged on it.

The ball will be in Kathy Dahlkemper’s court to explain her votes in favor of a stimulus bill that most people feel hasn’t been successful, and a health care bill that is at best confusing and that is certainly very controversial.

Believe me, I sympathize. I’ve been there, and when you take controversial votes, you need to be able to go back to people and explain why you did what you did.

So the seat is very much in play. My suspicion is that Mr. Kelly with his grassroots support is the favorite.

PoliticsPA: What do you think this election is going to mean for Congressional redistricting next year, especially with Pennsylvania expected to lose at least one seat?

English: Whatever part of the state you take a seat away from, it will significantly change the dynamics everywhere in the state. The map drawn last time was drawn to maximize Republican potential, but it ended up putting some Republicans at risk.

There has been a significant loss of population in the southwest. There have also been major population shifts in the southeast, and the way the lines are drawn there will give the state legislature a great deal of latitude about how to restructure that area. I think you’re going to see very different district lines in the next Congress.

Also, my sense is that it will be a real challenge to bring together the delegation on redistricting. When I was a staffer in the legislature, the delegation used to come in with a bipartisan, united position. The dynamics make it hard to see that happening again. Between the governor’s mansion and especially the state legislators interacting with the Congressional delegation, you may have some real surprises coming out of this process.

PoliticsPA: What are you personally doing these days?

English: I’m working for Arent Fox, a highly regarded Washington law firm. I’m part of the government relations team – I’m not a lawyer.

What I like is a law firm first and a government-relations relations operation that supports that. It’s been a privilege to have a chance at this stage of my life to build a new career and take problem-solving into a very different direction.

PoliticsPA: What kind of clients do you have?

English: My clients are eclectic. A number are in higher education, and I have a tax client or two. I have a lot of work in the health care sector, and I also do a lot of work with technology firms.

PoliticsPA: Where are you based, in Washington or Pennsylvania?

English: I split my time. Part of what I like about the firm is that they’ve encouraged me to build closer ties to Pennsylvania clients and to maintain my previous contacts. Erie is still my home, but a major part of my time is in D.C.

PoliticsPA: Do you have any desire to get back into electoral politics?

English: I haven’t ruled it out, but I don’t really have it on my to-do list. I’ve got a lot of things I would like to accomplish, and I’ve got an oar in water by serving on a national advisory board for UNESCO. That was an appointment that came at the end the last administration.

I kept another oar in the water with some nonprofits, and I am very involved in a number of Washington-area organizations that get me into trade policy and international relations.

So I have a great deal of interest in public service, but I’m not sure my next step would be to run again for office. A year ago, my name was mentioned for a seat on the International Trade Commission. That has not happened, but I would not rule out an avenue like that in the future.

October 1st, 2010 | Posted in Features | 2 Comments

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