Races of the WeekPaterno vs. Holden

Monday, May 24, ’04: For Republican U.S. House nominee Scott Paterno, it was only about a 20-minute drive from his Derry Township (Pa.) home to the U.S. War College in Carlisle, Pa. He had been invited to join George W. Bush as the President delivered his nationally televised speech on Iraq. But the 31-year-old Paterno declined the President’s invitation–particularly hard for Paterno, because the fathers of both men have been friends for more than two decades. The congressional candidate couldn’t go to the speech because he had promised Eagle Scout Jason Gontz that that same evening he would attend a meeting of Rutherford Boy Scout Troop #308, at which the young man was to be honored. Jason had met and liked Paterno and wanted him there for his big moment. Paterno was not only at the troop meeting, but read a letter of congratulations to Jason–from none other than George W. Bush.

Passing up a presidential invitation to keep a promise to a Boy Scout is typical of Scott Paterno, graduate of Penn State University and Dickinson Law School and former aide to the state senate majority leader. It showed that, contrary to what political opponents had said, he was far more than an “empty suit” and “Coach Paterno’s son.” It also made it easier to understand why Paterno had topped a field of six candidates in April to win the GOP nomination for Congress and why Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) had encouraged him to make the race. “You are our best and only hope in the 17th,” he told Paterno, and is an added reason five-term Rep. Tim Holden is in political peril.

Redistricting in ’01 made the five-county district strongly Republican. When two incumbents were forced to compete against one another the following year, twenty-year GOP Rep. George Gekas was the favorite over junior Democrat Holden, but Holden upset the 72-year-old Gekas by about 4,800 votes.

In a district that George W. Bush had carried with 56% of the vote in 2000, Holden (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 40%) was undoubtedly helped by breaking with his party and voting pro-life and for the 2nd Amendment. “He’s occasionally right on some things,” says opponent Paterno, “But it’s the things he’s wrong on that I’m upset with.”

Holden, Paterno charges, opposed the President’s tax relief packages of ’01 and ’03. As the GOP nominee puts it: “More than 35,000 family-sustaining jobs here in Pennsylvania are the direct result of cutting taxes. My opponent is opposed to fiscal policy that creates jobs.” Moreover, Holden–having voted to support Operation Iraqi Freedom–now follows in the path of John Kerry and, retreating from his original stand, cited his “disappointment” with the President’s May 24th speech. In striking contrast, Paterno stands firm with Bush on Iraq, saying, “There will be difficulties ahead, [but] the mission at hand is vital to our national interest.”

Like Kerry, Holden talks of opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to hold down gasoline prices. Paterno hit that hard, maintaining that the SPR should be tapped only in the event of a national emergency and that, in contrast to Holden’s vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for desperately needed oil (He’s “too concerned about the mating habits of the Arctic caribou,” quipped the conservative hopeful.) Paterno says he would have voted for ANWR drilling.

Inevitably, any discussion of the race comes back to whether Scott Paterno will get a boost from being the son of a Keystone State legend, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. In his words, “Obviously, my father and his friends are helping me, and I’m glad. But that alone won’t decide whether I have the opportunity to serve; Only the issues will.”