A Fighting Chance?
Slugging out some tough questions with former pugilist and current U.S. House candidate Ron DiNicola
By: Matt Swanseger
The Minutemen militia of the American Revolution prided themselves on being ready to respond "at a moment's notice." As it was then, as it is now with another fighter of local renown, current lawyer and former U.S. Marine and boxer Ron DiNicola, the gunshot being the redistricting of the Pennsylvania congressional map this past winter, which reunited previously divided Erie County. DiNicola has put his gloves on and reentered the political arena after a 20 year hiatus, vying for the new PA District 16 title in the U.S. House of Representatives after having been knocked out previously in the 1996 PA-3 bout against Republican Phil English. His opponent in this match is Mike Kelly, who has been barely threatened since being elected to his PA-3 seat eight years ago.
Before his days in politics, DiNicola (center) was a U.S. Marine and boxer.
DiNicola has been training vigorously for this moment, committing himself to community service and working both in private practice and as a public defender. Although he won't be fighting with both hands tied behind his back this time thanks to the fairer congressional district map, he will face an uphill battle against issues such as low turnouts at the polls and voter apathy — for instance, at the primaries this spring, only 22 percent of registered voters showed up.
I was also ready at a moment's notice after receiving a last-second call from campaign manager Tony Coppola, nullifying my scheduled Wednesday morning phone interview with the Democratic candidate in favor for a face-to-face conference in his downtown office. With any luck, hopefully Erieites of all demographics will roll out of bed and answer their call to vote in the election on November 6.
Matt Swanseger: Tell me about the general vibe and tenor of the voter base as you're going around campaigning? Do you think they're hopeful? Concerned? Do you think they're ready for a change? What is your outlook in regard to this race?
Ron DiNicola: Well my outlook and their outlook are merging, but [within] their outlook in my view is there is a great deal of concern and frustration associated with the inefficacy of Congress. Most people just don't feel Congress is working for them. And by the way, they're right. The first thing you struggle with with voters is giving them a sense of "why should I care anymore?" Congress is gridlocked and it's not getting anything done in regard to all the important issues that are facing us. So there's a great deal of anxiety about that.
Now, having said that, what I have also said is that we have to take that anxiety and frustration and channel it into the energy to change things. The good news is that there is an appreciable number of folks who are energized about the possibility of changing things and are compelled by the urgency of the situation. So they're anxious about the possibilities of our little slice of democracy here — which is the 16th District of Pennsylvania, that maybe we can put our imprint on it. We have an unprecedented number — in my view — of volunteers coming to the campaign, people who tell me everyday "Thank you for running," people who ask me everyday, "How can I help?" So I think that's what I'm experiencing from the voters.
MS: That's encouraging. Now you had run for office before. What compelled you to get back into the race? Did you always have a comeback in mind or was there a pivotal moment or event somewhere in the past 20 years or so that reignited your drive to get back into the political arena?
RD: I wasn't planning to run for Congress. I was enjoying the professional work I was doing; I was enjoying the opportunity to be active in the community on projects that I thought were important (such as Pre-K for PA, Empower Erie, the Police Athletic League). So I was enjoying that kind of work, even though it was volunteer work and it was hard and it was a lot of extra stress — but it was fun.
The catalytic event here was when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the disgraceful redistricting map that emasculated Erie's federal presence. What happened there was that the U.S. Supreme Court had been struggling over a standard of review to assess unlawfully gerrymandered districts. They lamented that there was no standard that they could apply to be able to police the issue of gerrymandering. The Pa. Supreme Court didn't feel encumbered in that way. They said, "look, we know a gerrymandered district when we see it" and it bears no resemblance to the geographic map of communities, cities, boroughs, and towns that need to be consolidated as an area of shared interest.
The Pa. Supreme Court said, "That's unconstitutional as far as we're concerned." So they did something that no one else in the country had thought of — which was to base the map on the Pennsylvania Constitution as opposed to the federal constitution. That changed everything. It reunited Erie County, reunited Crawford County, and created a much more competitive congressional district. I got into it at the very last minute. My wife and I had several conversations about it. We felt it was a seminal moment for the community and the region. We thought about it long and hard and decided it was too important to ignore. I've always believed public service was a duty and so we got into it.
MS: What were your biggest takeaways from those '90s campaigns and how are you applying those lessons today? Are there any parallels you can draw between your opponent then and your opponent now?
RD: I've spent a lot of time driving up and down I-79 in my life and been in the towns and boroughs of Western Pennsylvania probably as much as anybody, meeting the people and being at their events and their functions and experiencing what their reality is. And to answer the question, I'd *like to say that things have gotten better for them, but by and large, the cities and towns and boroughs of Western Pennsylvania are still struggling for sustainability. They're still struggling with the challenges associated with structural unemployment and the flight of young talent and the question of "what will become of us?"
I feel and I have strong views about the need to put the federal government back on the side of those cities and towns, who actually built America and find themselves to some extent languishing in the backwater of attention from Washington while the special interests dominate the political process. I don't really see the federal government on the side of the middle class or working families or the cities and towns in our region. So what I have learned is we've got to address that. And that's what's important for the region.
I feel a great sense of optimism now in the sense that we have a new innovation class coming into play in a lot of places that need more tools. And we can see some of that in Erie with the development we have going on here and the change in perspective and attitude and outlook and I see it in other places in the region. So I think there is good reason for us to be hopeful as long as we have a plan moving forward and as long as that plan includes a functional federal government that is going to be on the side of working families and the working class.
MS: How do you respond to Mike Kelly's ads? Is it possible for you to take the high road with this campaign or do you have no choice but to roll up your sleeves and give it back? How would you describe the opposition's plan of attack and how have you countered it so far and how will you counter it down the stretch?
RD: I think there is plenty to talk about on the issues. So we're really focused on that. The attacks on me are kind of canned in my own view — I'm a lawyer, so I represent people and fulfill a Constitutional duty and some of the cases I've been involved with in the past happen to be criminal cases. Those cases have been grossly misrepresented in the advertising against me, but I'm not going to spend much time on that nonsense because I view it as being an aside to the race which is "What are we going to do with America? And how are we going to make Congress more responsive to the needs of working families of Pennsylvania?" And right now, my opponent is not doing that and I've got a lot to talk about. So I don't really view that as a negative. I view that as a fair playing field on helping the voters decide what their future ought to be for their representative in Congress.
MS: To your point earlier, you mentioned an energy and an eagerness for change as you've been making the rounds. How are you working to engage younger people — and especially minorities — and helping them to realize their vote matters?
RD: We have a number of young people actively involved in leadership positions in the campaign. So I think that's one of the ways you do that; you surround yourself with a variety of people, including young people who help you manage the campaign. So we're very excited about that. We have reached out to them and will continue to make ourselves available to meet with them. We find them in almost every meeting that we have, whether it's on the environment, economic development, or in our canvassing program, so I'm very excited about it. I have three daughters — ages 21, 19, and 15 — so I have my own pipeline to the views of young people and their friends and their social networks.
So I consider that to be a high priority for my campaign and I find it deplorable that my opponent would not meet with young people. I have an open door policy and I intend to have public town halls. I made a pledge on that going forward and I'm also going to do that as part of this campaign. So I'm looking forward to that opportunity to have those conversations and I've had many of them already. In any event, I'm feeling good about it and I'm feeling we have a lot of diverse attitudes within the campaign and we have a lot of young people canvassing and knocking on doors for us.
MS: That's good and all, but I think to win this race, you guys will need these underrepresented voting demographics to actually *show up* at the polls. I heard a statistic that less than 10 percent of the city's African-Americans showed up at the polls in the previous Presidential race, so that's a big issue. These are the people who most need the change around here but they're not leveraging that change by showing up to vote.
RD: We've had block parties within the inner city; we're planning on having more demonstrations in the inner city; we're planning a march in the inner city. We're going to try to do everything we can to move the needle on voter turnout. That's a big part of our effort so we're focused on that.
MS: Politics seem more contentious and divisive than they have ever been. Do you see any hope of ending the squabbling and striking some kind of accord across the aisle or do you believe the ideologies of each party have drifted so far apart that compromise is wishful thinking?
RD: I do see reason for hope, and part of it is that there are a record number of veterans running now. I think veterans are a good fit for the times we are living in. I think that perception you've articulated is right and that's what we're running against is the fact that members of Congress are stuck in ideological ditches and they can't get out of them to find common ground in the middle of the road. That's what the American people are insisting on. They're tired of the nonsense.
So I think that veterans bring an accountability factor and a mission-oriented psychology to the playing field. They're practical, they are about moving forward, and they're about getting things done. I think they're not going to waste a lot of time on ideological extremes. Most of the problems we're facing are solvable if we have the resolve to come together in common sense problem-solving, which is something I have some experience in. Most of the projects I've been involved with in the community have involved bringing together the Chamber of Commerce, organized labor, university presidents, and the base community and getting them to work with one another.
I think that's critical and that's a clear distinguishing factor from my opponent. My opponent really spews divisiveness and what we really need to do is find common ground. How do we find the common-sense approach to solving our problems? People want to bring the volume down on the divisive rhetoric. They want some civility. They want some cooperation. They want people to compromise and be accountable. That's why the redistricting was so critical.
MS: Because now you have a shot.
RD: Now we have a shot and it makes me more accountable. You can't ignore large segments of your constituency. You have to try to understand what's in the best interest of the region and the country. I'm focused on that. I think if you do that, and you have a track record of doing that, that's a pretty good indication on how you're going to try to govern. I think that's where my opponent gets a failing grade time and time again. They voted to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. They were in control of the government. Congress had its say for several years — they could've come up with another plan if they felt it was bad, or fixed it — and we'd have voted on that, but you don't just dismantle it. You don't just dismantle healthcare for the country and say "okay, that's what we had to do because it was bad." You have to come up with something that gives you a way forward.
Tony Copolla: If I may interject one thing, Kelly is on CNN at the time they're talking about the Republican healthcare bill saying that insurance companies need to charge people with preexisting conditions more because it's a business decision.
RD: Let me say this too. I understand this because I have a preexisting condition, an eye condition, and I know what it's like to need to have good insurance. I can afford good insurance. But people who are out there who don't have the ability to buy good insurance need to have a system where they can get affordable insurance. This is not something that is a foreign concept for us — universal access to good quality health insurance is important for our country. It's important for our economy. We can't stifle small businesses from getting started and destroy our competitive edge in the international market because of ballooning healthcare costs. So we have to figure out a way to cut out the red tape and the layers and layers of bureaucracy that exist in the healthcare system. We need to find a way through that. But that's going to require people that really want to solve the problem and not people who want to use it as political football. So that's really a challenge for us.
MS: Among the priorities you'd bring to Congress, you've listed long term protection of Medicare and Social Security, enhancing education, environmental protection, and opening economic opportunity. These concerns are vital to the longevity of not only our community, but also communities everywhere. Yet they seem as if they're being continuously undermined. Can you speak to each of these goals you're targeting?
RD: Well, let me focus it this way. There's a portal issue; there's a door we need to go through to get to all the other issues. The portal issue is we've got to fix Congress. If your lawnmower is broken, you can't mow the lawn. You're not going to be able to do much, so you've got to fix the lawnmower and then you go on to the next task. Right now we have a Congress that's broken; it doesn't work. It's accountable to special interests; its a plutocracy. Money is dominating the political process and in turn the policies of our country. So we've got to fix that.
That's number one. Once you get that done, then you go through the portal and figure out what you're going to focus on and how you're going to get it done. And for me, the economic development equation for Western Pennsylvania is pretty straightforward. Three things: One, we have to have a workforce that's prepared to meet the challenges of the jobs that are coming. That means they have to have certifications 60-65 percent of jobs in the future will require — knowledge of mathematics, science, engineering, etc. So we need to make sure that they're prepared, because the jobs that sustained us before are not the jobs that are coming.
Secondly, we need to have livable communities, because people aren't going to want to invest in the future of a community that is riddled with economic inequalities and poverty and stricken with a hollowing out of the urban core. There are a number of towns that are struggling with that in the region. We have to find pathways to get people out of poverty and create communities that are sustainable and strong and healthy.
The third thing is, because we're situated in the Great Lakes Basin, the largest freshwater system in the world, and we have rivers, lakes, and streams that are a precious resource. We have to be very vigilant about the environment. My opponent has the worst record in Congress on the environment. We have 50 miles of lakefront; we have an extraordinarily gifted environment in our region. Go all the way down Western Pennsylvania and look at the lakes and the streams and the wooded areas that we have — these are a real resource for us. Migration patterns are changing in this country. Geographic proximity given advanced technology is not what it used to be. People can choose where they want to be. We need to make sure we're a region people are going to want to choose. The innovators, the people that are interested in investing in new business and opportunity. We want to make sure [Western Pennsylvania is] a candidate for that. One thing we can't make a mistake on is the environment. This is a big challenge for us. We can't afford to be represented by somebody who's got the worst record in Congress on the environment.
MS: Especially here with the lake which is *the* central resource for our community. Can you speak a little bit to repeated short-changing of the public school system and its struggle to stay afloat? What sort of efforts would you make to end the tax breaks and exemptions and establish the funding base for a more stable foundation for our children and our future?
RD: Public education as it relates to a taxing standpoint is a local and state issue. However, the federal government has a sustaining role to play in setting the tone for public education and creating opportunities at every level of educational development. And also it provides much-needed financial support. What we have seen is that the federal component has consistently decreased, and we've seen it decrease by federal actions that have undervalued the importance of education. I've worked very, very hard for education: Pre-K for PA, giving three- and four-year-olds the tools they need to hit the ground running, because we know if we do that, we're going to save costs on special education, truancy, dropouts, and later the criminal justice system. We know that's a huge investment. I grew up in a family where my father, who was an immigrant and built the house I grew up in, died, so my mother was left with three children, very little skills, very little education. But she made sure I was educated, that my brother and sister were. We have more than paid back the Social Security benefits we got after my father died and whatever assistance we received during that period of time.
That's the kind of investment that America needs to make in its young people. And right now education is becoming less and less affordable and we're seeing the undermining of our public school system. We need to renew our commitment to education. My opponent has a different view. He sees this as exclusively a local issue. But the party he belongs to is the party of Lincoln, that brought us the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which was one the most dramatic commitments the country could make to affordable education. I'm a strong supporter of education because I think that's another portal issue for us to be competitive and be strong and create those livable communities that we need.
Matt Swanseger can be reached at email@example.com