EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview with U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly will be followed by article on Kelly’s opponent, Democratic nominee Ron DiNicola, as well as other races on the ballot in the Nov. 6 election.
SHARON — If U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly wins re-election on Nov. 6, he could be in Congress for 10 years.
But he wants voters to focus on the last 21 months, since President Donald Trump took office.
“Things are going so well right now,” Kelly said recently during an interview at The Herald offices in Sharon. “I would tell you the last 21 months have been an incredible ride.”
The four-term Republican representative talked about 4 percent growth in the gross domestic product and unemployment rates below 4 percent as signs of boom economic times in the United States during Trump’s presidency. The best way to continue those positive signs, Kelly said, is to keep the U.S. House and Senate in Republican hands, and locally, by re-electing him.
Kelly, of Butler, is seeking a fifth term in the House against a challenge from Democrat Ron DiNicola, an Erie-based attorney and activist. After representing Pennsylvania’s 3rd District since 2011, Kelly and DiNicola are running for office in the 16th Congressional District, formed under district boundaries redrawn earlier this year by the state Supreme Court.
The new 16th District includes all of Mercer, Crawford, Erie and Lawrence counties, and part of Butler County.
Kelly credited the 2017 tax cut and deregulation led by the Trump administration for an economic boom, but said there was more work to be done, particularly in education for workplace readiness.
“We have to get them to a point where they can walk out of the classroom and into a job,” he said of young job seekers.
Because Congress and the president are working together on economic policy, Kelly said the nation’s future is bright. That policy includes proposals like opportunity zones, which encourage businesses to enter municipalities and neighborhoods where they might not otherwise invest.
Kelly said that bright future will offset costs of the 2017 tax cut, which is being blamed for a deficit of $779 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. He saw the tax cut as an investment that might cost money now, but will have a positive long-term impact on the federal deficit.
That positive impact is already being felt, Kelly said, through a 4.2 percent gross domestic product increase in the second quarter of 2018.
“I’m willing to make that investment, knowing that I will get a return on that investment,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between 2 percent growth and growth that’s much higher.”
Tariffs, another of Trump’s initiatives, have had mixed impacts in the district, with Wheatland Tube Co. benefiting from the levies on foreign steel, and NLMK Pennsylvania paying fees for its use of foreign steel it processes at its Farrell plant.
Kelly said he and his staff have been advocating through letters and meetings with the U.S. Department of Commerce for NLMK to receive an exemption from the tariffs. The company has applied for the exemption, but the department has not yet taken any action.
He said he has pushed for NLMK to get to the top of the exemption review list, and is pushing to get an answer quickly from federal officials.
The congressman said work on behalf of NLMK has resulted in pushback from AK Steel, which has a factory in Butler Township near Kelly’s home base. AK has formally opposed NLMK’s exemption application with the Department of Commerce.
“Am I concerned about AK Steel in Butler? Yes. Am I concerned about NLMK in Sharon? Yes,” he said.
In the global marketplace, Kelly said the Trump administration is focused on the word “reciprocal” in trade agreements.
In Kelly’s opinion, the recently completed United States-Canada-Mexico accord is an example of a trade agreement done right.
It is about making sure that the U.S. is treated with the same considerations that it gives its trading partners.
“We will go into any agreement in any part of the world as long as they treat us the same way we treat them,” Kelly said.
Even though Kelly still aims to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, he assailed a popular Democratic campaign claim that Republican healthcare proposals would eliminate what might be the law’s most popular provision, which prevents insurers from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
Kelly said he would protect the pre-existing conditions provision and that Republicans are targeting health-care costs, in part through increasing competition among healthcare providers.
“The one thing that we have failed to see is competition,” he said. “We know that competition keeps quality up and costs down.”
Kelly said the Affordable Care Act focused on insurance availability but failed to control costs.
“The cost of health care affects the cost of insurance,” he said.
Kelly bristles at a common accusation — that he avoids meeting with constituents — which stems from his decision not to hold in-person town hall meetings. Instead, Kelly said he meets with individuals and groups whenever possible.
“There has never been a time, in my almost eight years in this office, that we have turned down a request to meet with us,” he said.
And Kelly hasn’t abandoned the town-hall concept. He has held tightly focused topic-based telephone town hall meetings, which he said allow people throughout the district to participate in the process from the comfort of their own homes.
Tim Butler, Kelly’s district director, said the telephone town halls have attracted a minimum of 900 people and a maximum of 14,000.
Kelly also said that he has made it a priority to make sure there are a large number of offices throughout the district, which have been nominated for a nonpartisan award recognizing superior constituent service.
Since Trump took office, Kelly said his district offices had been targeted by protestors over Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he has heard the accusations that he would eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
Many of his opponent’s claims in television ads and in public are untrue, Kelly said.
Kelly said he has been accused of enriching himself through votes he has made in Congress, a charge he hotly denies. He claims that serving in Congress is actually costing him money because it takes him away from his business.
He said a windfall from a sale in his wife’s family gas and oil business was mischaracterized as ill-gotten gains from legislation. Kelly said his wife, Victoria, and her family had owned the business for years and sold it to a larger company after the Marcellus Shale boom began in Pennsylvania.
“It wasn’t an act of Congress,” Kelly said. “It was an act of commerce.”
He says another charge — the so-called “Kelly Kickback” — stems from another mischaracterization. A provision in the tax code allows businesses to write off 100 percent of the interest when they use a line of credit to purchase stock for sale.
In Kelly’s case, that would be money borrowed to buy the cars he sells from the manufacturer. Similar provisions, he said, exist under previous tax code, and apply to a wide range of businesses beyond just car dealerships.
As for his own dealings in Congress, Kelly says he tries to get bipartisan co-sponsorship on bills he proposes, because having Democrats and Republicans working together enhances a proposal’s chances for passage.
“How do we get to that point where civil debate is no longer possible? It’s this thing right here,” Kelly said, holding up his cell phone.
After DiNicola’s victory last May in the Democratic primary, Kelly said he proposed a slate of three debates, based around the House of Representatives schedule.
“We scheduled debates in all three of the media markets, and we made them available to our opponent,” Kelly said. “I have a congressional calendar that I have no control over.”
He said DiNicola’s campaign received the dates in June. Kelly said there was no communication with him or his office about the list in July, August or September.
Throughout the summer, however, the Democratic candidate balked at the schedule and said he wanted input on when and where the forums would take place.
Kelly said he learned his opponent was not participating in the Grove City or Butler debates when the organizer of the Grove City matchup, Grove City College, was notified that DiNicola would not be attending. That information came after the first debate, which was held Oct. 8 in Erie.
Kelly’s campaign wanted control over the schedule in part because the congressman had faced incidents in the past where groups had set up events deliberately when the House of Representatives was in session, and then blamed Kelly for not attending, district director Tim Butler said.
Kelly said he left all other debate provisions outside the times and places up to the event organizers, and that DiNicola could have had input on factors such as the style and choosing the debate moderators.
Kelly said Republicans aren’t anti-environment, and that he is concerned about clean air, water and soil, but he opposes regulations from President Barack Obama’s administration because they had a devastating impact on the economy.
“We can protect the environment and the economy at the same time,” he said. “It’s not an either-or thing.”
Kelly said the Trump administration is only employing Obama-era immigration legislation that previously went unenforced.
He said he supports both immigration laws and immigrants, adding that most Americans have immigrant ancestors.
He acknowledged that a growing economy will need skilled immigrants who are allowed into the United States only after a thorough process.
“If we don’t know who comes in, we have to vet them,” Kelly said. “We want the best and brightest. When it comes to chain migration, just because your cousin got in, it doesn’t mean your entire family gets in.”
Kelly calls himself “unashamedly and unabashedly pro-life.”
But Kelly said he doesn’t believe that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court with the addition of Brett Kavanaugh will necessarily mean the imminent repeal of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down prohibitions on abortion.
Instead, Kelly chooses to focus on adoption as an alternative, and has promoted legislation to widen access to adoption services, including providing federal funding to faith-based agencies who might choose not to work with same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs.
“I’m not saying that other agencies out there can’t continue to do the same things,” he said. “Everyone who wants to be in the business should be in the business.”