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Sam Bennett: Democratic Hope in the Pennsylvania 15th Congressional District

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April 1st, 2008

If I had only one Republican controlled Congressional District to target in a key battleground state this year, it would be the Pennsylvania 15th. This is a proven Democratic performing District that could very easily take the swing out of the swing state of Pennsylvania. Turning the 15th Congressional District solidly Democratic along with the recent electoral gains made in eastern Pennsylvania by Democrats means the state will remain reliably “Blue” in upcoming elections.

There are only 7 Congressional districts in the nation that were won by both Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 that are currently represented in the U.S. House by a Republican. This seat is currently held by relative newcomer Charles Dent. He is facing a stiff challenge from a talented female candidate in Sam Bennett. With a solid background in politics as a Democratic Party leader, grassroots activist and organizer, Bennett is raising significant support both nationally and locally.

Emily’s List is already looking hard at adding Sam Bennett to their endorsement list. All the women’s organizations are likely to provide significant resources and expertise to her campaign. Organized labor has been solid in their support for the Bennett candidacy. As a businessperson in the community, Sam Bennett has developed some significant support from outside the traditional base of Democratic supporters.

Sam Bennett is starting to get some national recognition especially from the Democratic and Progressive Netroots community. While most journalists from outside the District have not yet discovered the race, it is starting to be discussed in the larger organized labor community as a likely pick-up seat.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee are working on expanding their operations and logistical support in all the greater Lehigh Valley communities that comprise the Pennsylvania 15th Congressional District. The local Democratic Party is vibrant and growing. The local Democratic Party leadership is strong in every community and at every level. There is a solid Democratic Party organization to build on for any Democratic candidate. There has been a steady stream of Democratic gains at the local and state level in recent elections.

Bennett is certainly benefiting from the respect of the local Democratic Party leadership developed over the years by her activities in the field. The 15th Congressional District is not a Democratic performance District by accident. The Democrats in the greater Lehigh Valley work very hard and admire hard work. A candidate like Bennett is used to hard work. She worked her own way through college at SUNY. She is a successful businesswoman helping to run a business with her husband while raising a family and being active in community affairs.

The Chair of the Northeast Pennsylvania Democratic Caucus and the Northampton Democratic Party Joe Long says, “In all my decades of political involvement, I have never seen a harder-working candidate. I have been involved in a lot of campaigns and seen lots of candidates.”

Organized labor is working the region aggressively with various kinds of programs and resources coming in from the national and state levels. The local labor community is blessed by an excellent collection of highly talented and politically aware union leaders. The labor community is highly involved, highly organized and highly visible. Many cities, towns and organizations in the Lehigh Valley have been passing resolutions or writing letters in support of the Employee Free Choice act.

In this writer’s very first conversation with Sam Bennett many months ago, she strongly expressed her support for the Employee Free Choice Act and for providing universal healthcare.

It is often stated that the 15th Congressional District has the largest number of union members, members of union households and union retirees in the nation. There can be no doubt that organized labor is very strong and active in the area. The industrial, blue-collar roots of many residents help shift the 15th District solidly toward the Democratic camp in most recent national elections. The 15th Congressional District comprises the formerly heavily industrial Pennsylvania cities of Allentown and Bethlehem.

Although greatly reduced in numbers from their 20th Century highs, the United Steel Workers (USW), the United Auto Workers (UAW), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and other industrial unions still have many members in the region. Total union membership had declined significantly as American factories were closed. In recent decades, new unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have emerged to replace some of the union membership lost in recent decades because of factory closings. The region was badly hit by the closure of American steel mills and off-shoring of American manufacturing. Almost all the other large unions are active in the Lehigh Valley such as the various building trades (like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Carpenters, Laborers, etc.), American Postal Workers (APWU), hotel and textile employees (UNITE-HERE) and service employees (SEIU).

Recently, the decline in union membership in the greater Lehigh Valley has halted. Last year, union membership in the area actually increased.

Because the labor community is solidly behind Sam Bennett, she has a very strong chance of winning the Congressional seat. She has earned their support by being right on the issues and working very, very hard to win the race. The President of the Greater Lehigh Valley Labor Council Gregg Potter, a CWA member, stated, “immediately after the votes were counted in 2006 and it became clear that Dent had edged out Northampton County Councilman and IBEW member Charles Dertinger, Sam Bennett let it be know that she would challenge Dent in 2008. She has been working enthusiastically toward that end ever since without rest. She has been a good friend of organized labor.”

There are a growing number of Hispanic voters in the various communities of the Lehigh Valley. The Hispanic voter has been trending Democratic very heavily in the most recent elections and opinion polls. Democrats can gain significantly by devoting more resources to voter registration and turn-out in this community. In the 15th District race, this could be a key target opportunity that could be exploited by a Democratic Congressional candidate like Sam Bennett. According to the Congressional Quarterly website, the 15th District is 8 percent Hispanic.

American seniors vote in large numbers. This is especially true in the greater Lehigh Valley. They represent a much larger percentage of the total votes cast than of the general population in almost all elections. The 15th Congressional District may be demographically the oldest in the nation by many estimates. These voters are very much inclined to respond in a positive way to the majority of Democratic economic proposals. Current economic concerns are likely to be huge campaign issues in the Lehigh Valley.

The growing emphasis on economic issues is a natural advantage to Democrats in the 15th Congressional District. The current Republican Congressman Charles Dent has been voting with the rest of the Bush Republicans on almost every economic issue that has come before Congress. High fuel prices and increasing employment insecurity are working strongly against Dent. His support for Bush’s Iraq War hurts Dent. With 72 percent owner-occupied housing, mortgage insecurity issues are not going to bode well for the incumbent.

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Stephen Crockett is co-host of Democratic Talk Radio and author of the Democratic Voices opinion column.
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