Capital-Star Q+A: Lou Barletta thinks second time’s the charm in GOP governor’s run

Barletta talked the 2020 election, immigration, and labor

By: - September 24, 2021 1:01 pm

Editor’s note: It’s still 2021, but the 2022 field for Pennsylvania governor is starting to develop. The Capital-Star is trying to sit down with as many candidates as possible to ask them about their campaigns, background, and issues impacting Pennsylvanians.

Feel free to email [email protected] with any questions you’d like to see posed to candidates in the future.

Lou Barletta is a 65-year old former mayor of Hazleton; a four-term Republican congressman, and small businessman.

A native of northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal fields, he was known for passing city ordinances attacking undocumented immigrants, and for being among the first state politicians to back former President Donald Trump.

While he unsuccessfully ran statewide once before — for the U.S. Senate in 2018 — Barletta is back, and says he thinks that his mix of experiences and background make him the best man to win the governor’s mansion for the GOP.

Capital-Star: The first question, and the most basic question, is: Why run for governor?

Lou Barletta:  I watched how Governor [Tom] Wolf handled the pandemic, as most people: Watching businesses being closed; Governor Wolf picking winners and losers [which] didn’t make sense to me. You know, why can you go to Walmart and buy a bicycle, but you can’t go to your local bike shop, where you’ve done business for years?

That was people’s lives that were affected. I was a small business owner, and I know how hard we worked to keep our business alive. And some of these businesses won’t open again. 

Then I watched how our children had a year of their education taken from them … and we don’t know what the long-term effects of that will be — the social effects, as well as educational. And then senior citizens being sent back into nursing homes. Fifty percent of our deaths came from those nursing homes. 

And watching that, I think our economy has been hurt. I think there’s a great opportunity in Pennsylvania to bring good-paying jobs for manufacturing back to Pennsylvania. I don’t think we’re utilizing what we have here in Pennsylvania.

 I think I’m the best person to be able to do that, not only having business experience — starting and creating a very successful business [in road construction]. I’ve been mayor for 10 years, in Congress for eight. So I think my resume shows that I would be the right person to lead Pennsylvania.

C-S: Now this isn’t your first run for statewide office. You ran for U.S. Senate in 2018. And that wasn’t successful. Do you have to argue with voters that you deserve that second chance, and that you can win a statewide race if you’re given a second chance?

LB: No, quite the opposite. 

If you look at Pennsylvania, how big it is — you know, many times, statewide candidates have to run twice to be successful in Pennsylvania. [The late U.S. Sen.] Arlen Specter lost the first time he ran statewide. [U.S. Sen.] Pat Toomey lost the first time he ran statewide. Governor [Bob] Casey lost the first time he ran statewide. So sometimes it’s a prerequisite to run statewide in Pennsylvania because of how large it is to build up your statewide name ID, which I have done now. 

People know who I am. And you know the cost of doing that as well. That money’s already been spent. So it’ll take the other candidates $5 [million] to $7 million to get their statewide name ID, but mine already is [high]. 

Most of the other candidates don’t have a statewide name ID, and haven’t run statewide before — and some haven’t run for any political office before. So running for governor for the first time statewide in Pennsylvania will be a tougher task for the others, than for me.

C-S: One thing that I’m also asking every candidate about is election law. Election integrity showed up in a Franklin and Marshall poll — about 4 percent of Pennsylvanians said that that’s their top priority. And you’ve also said that HB 1300 didn’t go far enough. That was the House Republicans proposal for how to change the state elections, and Wolf vetoed it. How would you want to see HB 1300 different? What could have made that a better law from your perspective?

LB: I think what’s important, no matter what we do, is to bring integrity back to our elections so that people have faith again.

And part of bringing back that faith in our life is finding out what happened. You can’t fix going forward if we don’t know what went wrong in the past election. And that’s why I think we need a very close examination — not one county or two counties, but statewide — as to what went wrong. How do we fix it? You know, maybe things that went wrong in Philadelphia might be different from the things that went wrong in Luzerne County or another county. 

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So I think, just if we’re serious about fixing this moving forward, then I think we need to take that close look statewide as to what actually happened and how we fix it, so it doesn’t happen again. And then people will have more faith and that their elections can be fair and secure.

C-S: The state Senate voted on subpoenas on date for the start of their investigation. Are you saying you’d want to look at the findings of the audit? Would you want to conduct your own investigation if you’re elected governor in 2023, when you would be sworn in?

LB: We’ll watch what transpires, and what the Senate is doing. And judge as [to] what results they find

C-S: You’ve supported an investigation since December of 2020. Is that correct? 

LB: Yes.

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C-S: There were some legislative Republicans who were supporting ones even before Thanksgiving. That was a very early call. Have you had any supporters of President Trump kind of question your credentials to be the bearer on this topic, that you’ve been more of a follower than a leader on the 2020 election?

LB: No, I wasn’t in office. I wasn’t in the Senate, where I could have held hearings and reviewed what went wrong. I wasn’t in the House or the Senate. So I didn’t have the ability other than to say what my opinion was. 

C-S: Do you think that’s a disadvantage? 

LB: No. Millions of us were in the same place that I was. That doesn’t give somebody else an advantage. An advantage in to what, is my question?

C-S: There was Senator Doug Mastriano [R-Franklin]. There are still a bunch of state reps. I mean, even maybe Senator Scott Martin [R-Lancaster]. People who are in the building, they’re kind of able to build a profile off of challenging these things, signing these letters, trying to take action.

LB; My profile has been built on my experience in government. My profile has been built back as my time as mayor. You know, what I’ve been able to accomplish over 10 years: Pennsylvania mayor of the year; I represented the United States on the United Nations advisory board for local authorities. Only one mayor represents the entire country. I was picked for four years to represent the United States. 

So my profile was built on actually accomplishing things both at the municipal level, and then in time at Congress. Certainly, I don’t want to build my profile on just questioning an election. That doesn’t make me a better governor because I questioned the election, rather than someone else. That shouldn’t be the qualifications of who our next governor is.

C-S: Going back to your record as mayor. You know, one thing that your website mentions from your time as mayor, you passed ordinances that targeted undocumented immigrants. And you mentioned that as you were attempting to solve a problem that you saw in your community. What’s not mentioned on your site is those led to lawsuits from the ACLU who then won. I believe the city had to pay $1.4 million in legal fees.

I bring this up just because tackling immigration has been something that you’ve run on a lot, that you’ve administered on a lot when you were an executive. So how can Pennsylvania voters and citizens be sure that if elected governor that Pennsylvania won’t be paying an even bigger check to pay for legal feeds because you try something that isn’t legal and isn’t constitutional?

LB: What you left out of there is that our population grew by 50 percent, but our tax revenues stayed the same. Fifty  percent more people were in Hazleton, but our tax revenue stayed the same. What was the cost of doing nothing? 

C-S: How do you mean? 

LB: What is the cost of illegal immigration and doing nothing? It was far greater than $1.4 million …The reason I had to do it is because nobody in Washington had the courage to stand up and do something to stop the problems of illegal immigration.

I saw the drug trafficking. I saw innocent lives being taken. What was the cost of Derek Kichline’s life, the 29-year-old who was shot by an illegal immigrant who was arrested six times and let go in sanctuary cities? What was the cost of his life? Why don’t you ask Mr. And Mrs. Kichline, what was Derek’s life worth?

[Editor’s note: Prosecutors dropped charges against two undocumented immigrants charged with Kichline’s murder due to a lack of evidence.]

What were the lives of children who have been recruited into gangs worth? You want to put a price tag on people’s lives? Until you have to deal with this with the situation, as I did — I did what I thought was best for the people at Hazleton to try to stop it. I brought this issue to the forefront on a national stage. Which eventually was an issue across America. But I had the courage to stand up and actually do something to stop it. 

And if you look at the law — why did Hazleton lose? Maybe because we hit a liberal bench along the way. The state of Arizona used the business portion of our law. They went to the [U.S.] Supreme Court and won. They won in the Ninth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals]. So the Hazleton law is legal. The business portion is legal in Arizona. Fremont, Nebraska used the entire Hazleton ordinance and they won in the Eighth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals]. 

So the Hazleton law is legal in the Eighth Circuit, half of it is legal in the Ninth Circuit. But it was found to be illegal in the Third Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania]. So I guess it all depends what circuit the law was presented to … which shows you the problems that we have. The Supreme Court should make sure we don’t have a patchwork of federal laws, which [they] have failed to do.

[Editor’s note: A statewide Arizona law that forced private employers to check the immigration status of new hires was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, mirroring a Hazleton ordinance. But the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the circuit court ruling striking down Hazleton’s ordinances that cover employment and housing in 2014. A 2015 article from the Omaha World-Herald found that the Fremont ordinance banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants was “toothless” despite the circuit court’s ruling, which also conflicts with Supreme Court precedent.]

C-S: You mentioned that the business portion of your Hazleton ordinance was passed in Arizona. Like if somebody took Hazleton’s ordinance and wrote it for a state level, would you sign that for Pennsylvania?

LB: So, E-Verify for example. [A government system that checks workers immigration status, with varying success.] That’s all we were asking for.

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If businesses use E-Verify they could not be in violation of the law. I think E-Verify should be used across Pennsylvania to protect Pennsylvania workers.

C-S: Right now it’s only, I think, for construction and government jobs. You support a general expansion of E-Verify?

LB:  I think it protects Pennsylvania workers.

C-S: That brings up what I also want to ask about. You were at the Philadelphia Labor Day Parade. Republicans sometimes absolutely work with labor. It really depends on what part of the party you’re in  — sometimes they’re more hostile, sometimes more friendly. What would you say to a union carpenter or a union teacher or a union nurse, what would you tell them [about] why a Barletta campaign or Barletta administration would support their interests as working people?

LB: Well, because I’ve always stood up for blue-collar workers. That’s why I’ve been able to, as a Republican, win in Democrat areas. You know, the Congressional  seat I won was held by a 26-year Democratic incumbent. That was almost a two-to-one Democrat area, and I was able to win there. Hazleton city was two to one Democrat, I won by a two to one margin. I won by a four to one margin my second term and I went over 90% of the vote in my third term. 

And even in my senate run. Were the people who knew me best northeastern Pennsylvania, which is also where [U.S. Sen.] Bob Casey [D-Pa.] is from. I beat Bob Casey in northeastern Pennsylvania, which is also heavily Democratic. So I have a history of being able to get Democrat support because I support those blue-collar jobs. And that’s why I was asked to walk in that parade, because I stand with working men and women in Pennsylvania who need a voice to make sure that their jobs are here. So I think as a Republican, I think that’s why I have the best opportunity to win against someone like [state Attorney General] Josh Shapiro [a likely Democratic candidate], is because I have a proven record of bringing people together, Republicans and Democrats.

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C-S: The Inquirer asked you about whether you would sign Right to Work [legislation, that bans closed union shops.] Now, let’s put Right to Work aside. You said that was hypothetical. But in the General Assembly, they do have bills to get rid of prevailing wage [which requires contractors receiving state dollars to pay workers an average wage that includes union wages]. That’s something that’s kicked around up there. They do have bills to — it’s called paycheck protection, when you ban automatic deduction of union dues from public sector workers’ paycheck.

[Editor’s note: Paycheck protection typically refers to banning the automatic deduction of union political action committee contributions, not dues.] 

Put Right to Work aside, are you going to sign those bills if they’re upon your desk?

LB:  You’re asking all hypothetical questions. Without seeing a bill and the specifics that are in it-

C-S: But don’t you think union workers are gonna want to know what you’re going to do if those bills hit your desk?

LB: I don’t know what the bill is. I would have to see the bill. You’re making up a bill-

C-S: I’m not making them up. Those bills are in the General Assembly.

LB: Well, I haven’t seen the bills. So how can I respond? I would be irresponsible to respond to something that I haven’t seen. 

But here’s a question for you. Why don’t you ask Josh Shapiro if he’ll get rid of RGGI [the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which puts a price on carbon for power plants] if he’s elected governor? Does he stand with the working men and women or does he stand with the environmentalist groups? No media has asked him that question yet.

C-S: He hasn’t announced yet. That’s the only reason why. 

LB:  When he announces, I’m looking forward to seeing what-

C-S: I’ll be doing this for Josh Shapiro too.

LB: I’ll be looking for that question.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.