PA-11 Hopefuls Court Shippensburg Dems
Shippensburg — Both of the Democrats seeking to unseat Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Luzerne) met with college Democrats Friday night in the small town of Shippensburg at the southern end of Cumberland County – 20 miles from the Maryland border. It’s a long way from the northern tip of the 11th congressional district – 20 miles from the New York border in Wyoming County.
Republicans stretched the district from northeast Pa. into conservative south central Pa. in order to protect Barletta. The former mayor of Hazleton was the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent prior to redistricting. But mapmakers gave him a more favorable partisan swing than any other Republican; he went from a district with a Partisan Voting Index of D+4 (meaning a generic Democrat beat a generic Republican by 4 points), to one with a PVI of R+6.
The district now stretches 180 miles from end to end, and about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.
Bill Vinsko, an attorney from Wilkes-Barre, and Gene Stilp, a citizen activist from Dauphin County, made the drive down Interstate 81 to a tiny blue island in the deep red base of their new district. A group of about 40 college Democrats and local politicos gathered in downtown Shippensburg.
Both candidates took the opportunity to criticize the GOP for the district map.
“I announced for Congress before the lines were drawn,” said Vinsko. “In eight weeks, I outraised Lou Barletta in individual contributions.”
“I want to tell you a little bit about Lou Barletta,” Vinsko said, lifting a large map of the district that he had brought with him.
“He was so excited that I was in the race, that he drew an arrow to my house,” he said, noting the shape of the district. “What he did was put my house across the street from the district.”
Stilp echoed the criticism, and lamented that the map wasn’t taken to court.
“They screwed up the redistricting as we all know, for the local races and also for the congressional ones,” he said. “This district was made to protect Lou Barletta, and that’s why we’re taking Lou Barletta out.”
However, that sentiment didn’t stop Stilp from taking a swing at Vinsko. “I’m the only candidate who lives in the district,” he said during his speech and repeated after the event.
Vinsko said during his speech and afterward that he would move into the district, “when elected.”
Along with redistricting, most of their remarks focused on the issues and their backgrounds.
Vinsko is from Wilkes-Barre, went to college in Harrisburg, and Law School at Dickinson in Carlisle. He blasted Barletta for his support of transportation legislation that he says would result in funding cuts for central Pa., and Governor Tom Corbett for cuts to education spending.
Stilp, too, is from northeastern Pa. and went to college there. He now lives in northern Dauphin County. He talked about his resume as a good government activist responsible for litigation that fueled public knowledge of and outrage over the midnight pay raise and ‘Bonusgate.’
Over the course of his ten minute remarks, Stilp frequently came back to his most comfortable topic: government corruption in Harrisburg. He also discussed at length the need to preserve the military bases in and near the district.
At this early stage in the primary fight, Stilp’s residency zinger is as close as either candidate has come to attacking the other directly. And most Democrats in Cumberland County haven’t yet chosen a side.
Cumberland County Democratic Chairman Mike Fedor hasn’t endorsed either candidate and says he will defer to his committee’s decision. The committee meets Saturday to vote on an endorsement, but Fedor suggested that neither candidate has an edge given the high threshold required.
“I think that regardless how it shakes out for Bill, for Gene, we have great candidates. I’m excited,” he said, diplomatically.
Shippensburg College Democrats President Chuck Black echoed Fedor’s comments, saying that he planned to stay neutral in the race.
“I think they’re both great candidates. I think they both bring a lot of great points of view,” he said. “I will be supporting the candidate that wins the primary.”
Vinsko, who announced his campaign last fall, has raised about $105,000 so far and reported $52,000 on hand at the end of 2011. He’s also racked up a number of endorsements, particularly from labor groups. He told the crowd that he had earned Friday the support of the northeast Pa. ironworkers and the Harrisburg pipefitters.
“I picked up a few checks on my way down tonight,” he said, smiling.
Also speaking Friday night was Pa. House candidate Susan Spicka, who is running against Rep. Rob Kauffman in the 89th district. A former teacher, Spicka railed against Republicans in Harrisburg for what she called, “a concerted effort to destroy public education.”
“We don’t have a revenue problem,” she said,” we have a priorities problem.”