Republican Gerlach staying moderate in Democratic stronghold

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), a four-term incumbent, won by slim margins.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), a four-term incumbent, won by slim margins.
Posted: October 27, 2010

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, a moderate Republican delicately balanced in a majority Democratic district, recently campaigned for an issue that absolutely everyone supports: protecting kittens and puppies from peril.

During a campaign stop at Buzzy's Bow Wow Meow in Ardmore, Gerlach stopped to pet a graying golden retriever named Winston and a rescued boxer named Jackson, who jumped when something fell from a nearby shelf.

After accepting an endorsement from the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Gerlach mentioned two bills he supported that would prevent the crowding of horses into double-decker trailers and would ban the making of "crush videos," which show animals being tortured to death.

Animal-protection efforts are probably the four-term incumbent's least controversial, but Gerlach, 55, of Chester Springs, is known for tacking to center. While other Republicans have run headlong into the loving arms of further-right tea partyers this election year, Gerlach has preferred a more distant handshake.

He has to stay moderate: He has won the sprawling Sixth Congressional District with the narrowest of margins since its creation in 2001. The district stretches from Bryn Mawr to Kutztown, sweeping through Main Line homes, Chester County suburbs, Berks County farms, and communities such as Norristown, Reading, and Coatesville.

But Gerlach's moderation isn't simply to win Democratic votes, he says. His childhood experiences prevent him from embracing the right's mantra against big government. His family depended on a government program - Social Security - when his father was killed by a drunken driver.

Gerlach was only 5 then, and his mother, Helen, raised him and his two sisters on one income and help from the government.

"Without Social Security benefits, we would not have been able to survive," Gerlach said at his first debate this month with his Democratic opponent.

For the last two election cycles, Gerlach, saddled with voter anger over the war in Iraq and other Bush administration legacies, touted his independence from his party. This year, he's embracing the party, putting his votes against the economic-stimulus bill and the health-care plan front and center.

He has no trouble pointing out the differences between himself and his Democratic foe, Manan Trivedi, a Reading physician and Iraq War veteran.

"He's the most liberal opponent I've ever had for any public office," Gerlach said. "He supports cap-and-trade. I don't. He supports not extending the tax cuts for those over $250,000 in income. I don't think we should raise taxes on anybody in this recession."

Gerlach grew up in Ellwood City, a small town nestled in steel country between Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio.

After her husband's death, Gerlach's mother didn't want to take public assistance. She worked as a secretary and a bank teller. She died in 2008. Gerlach still calls her his mentor.

"She raised us with a work ethic . . . and values of contributing back to the community," he said.

Financial aid and part-time work at a sweater factory, at a foundry, and as a bartender helped put Gerlach through Dickinson College. During his years at Dickinson School of Law, he continued to work, including as a legislative assistant to a state senator.

Gerlach moved to Chester County in 1980 to work for a West Chester law firm. He went back to Ellwood City in 1986 and ran unsuccessfully for state representative. He returned to Chester County and tried again for a state House seat in 1990. He won by 23 votes.

Gerlach spent 12 years in Harrisburg: two terms in the House and eight years in the Senate. He worked on welfare reform and fought for passage of anti-sprawl legislation, which marked the first time in 20 years the state significantly revised its land-use laws.

In Congress, Gerlach's first successful piece of legislation established six new veterans cemeteries, including one in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gerlach was the prime sponsor of the bill, which became law in 2003. The first section of the local cemetery was built in Bucks County in 2009.

He calls it one of his proudest accomplishments.

"It's a real thrill to get your first bill passed and signed into law in the Oval Office," he said. In a separate response, he added that, "without the legislation, families in Southeastern Pennsylvania would still be driving more than 80 miles to visit the graves of loved ones."

Gerlach voted for the bank bailouts in 2008, a measure he thought was essential to keeping banks from shutting down.

"When the Federal Reserve chairman tells you that a financial meltdown is threatening to vaporize retirement nest eggs and college savings of millions of American families and choke off credit to small-business owners," he said, "you have an obligation to come up with a solution to avert a catastrophe."

But Gerlach soon regretted his vote on the so-called TARP bailout legislation.

"In January 2009, I voted to shut off the . . . spigot because it was clear that the program had been plagued by a lack of accountability and oversight almost from the moment the ink dried on the bill. And in April 2009, I voted for a proposal that would have forced AIG and other Wall Street beneficiaries to repay taxpayers for any bonuses paid to executives using TARP funds."

Gerlach voted against the stimulus, which he said put too few dollars toward creating actual jobs and repairing dilapidated bridges and roads, a problem plaguing Pennsylvania and other states. He also voted against the health-care legislation. Like other Republicans, Gerlach would like to repeal the bill, although President Obama would almost certainly veto any repeal measure.

Democrats have taken a hard run at Gerlach since his first race for Congress. But that first year remains their best effort, when Gerlach beat Democrat Dan Wofford with 51 percent of the vote. Gerlach swelled his victory margin in 2008, of all years, when Obamamania drove swooning Democrats to the polls.

A Monmouth University poll released last week showed Gerlach leading Trivedi by 10 points.

Jim Gerlach

Age: 55. Born Feb. 25, 1955, in Ellwood City, Lawrence County.

Residence: West Pikeland Township, Chester County.

Education: Dickinson College, B.A., political science, 1977. Dickinson School of Law, J.D., 1980.

Professional experience: Special counsel, Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel in Philadelphia; former member, board

of directors, Brandywine Hospital & Trauma Center; Mission for Educating Children with Autism; former member, board of trustees, Chester County Agricultural Development Council.

Political experience: State representative, 1990-94; state senator, 1994-2002;

U.S. representative, 2002-present.

Party: Republican.

Family: Wife, Karen; six children.

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or

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