When, as a candidate, Keith Rothfus ran for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in 2012, he was able to articulate his goals, visions and philosophies to voters without needing to concern himself much about how the actual day-in, day-out political process affects governing.
But since he took office a year ago today, the congressman from Pennsylvania’s 12th district has been trying to turn his ideas into results, while being just a freshman legislator at a time when he and the House’s Republican Party majority are often at loggerheads with President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party-controlled U.S. Senate. The wide schism was evident during discussions about sequestration, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a partial government shutdown, the debt ceiling and other matters.
“It’s a very challenging environment in Washington, D.C., with divided government,” said Rothfus. “It’s frustrating. We continue to debate the big issues, and we’re looking for ways to keep the country moving towards the right direction.”
Rothfus feels some of his most effective work has been done directly in the district, which consists of all of Beaver County, along with parts of Allegheny, Cambria, Somerset, Westmoreland and Lawrence.
“It has been an incredible privilege to serve as the employee of 700,000 people in western Pennsylvania,” Rothfus said.
He also has spent the past 12 months attempting to balance his beliefs with the needs of the district and the country.
“This is the nature of a representative republic,” said the congressman. “We hire individuals who we think can represent us. We have a very diverse district, very diverse set of opinions. I’m a conservative. I have my ideas, my philosophy, yet I’m a solutions person. I’m looking for solutions. I’m open-minded.”
As a member of the 113th Congress, Rothfus has introduced the Disaster Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act, Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act, and Medicare Beneficiary Preservation of Choice Act. The DATA Act would require the federal government to analyze its annual disaster spending in order to better project future expenses. His SENSE Act calls for excluding certain coal refuse-to-energy power plants from the Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury and air toxin standards pertaining to emission limits for hydrogen chloride and sulfur dioxide. Rothfus’ beneficiary proposal would allow qualifying seniors to switch between different Medicare Advantage plans during the first 90 days of any year.
Rothfus introduced an amendment prohibiting the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing performance bonuses to senior executives during the 2014 fiscal year into the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.
He has co-sponsored 114 pieces of legislation.
Rothfus, a House Committee on Financial Services member, has used his time in the Capitol to speak about various matters, ranging from the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell to the death of Republican Party of Cambria County Chairwoman Ann Wilson.
Rothfus has been an outspoken critic of what he feels is an often over-reaching federal government.
“People understand across the district that having the elites in Washington, D.C., micromanage everything back in western Pennsylvania is not good,” he said. “Washington’s booming. Rather than seeing all these construction cranes on Pennsylvania Avenue, I want to see construction cranes in Pennsylvania. D.C. is becoming wealthier and wealthier at the expense of Pennsylvania and places across the country. We need to reverse that trend.”
One of Rothfus’ first actions as a congressman was to vote against a $50.7 billion aid package that made funding available to victims of Superstorm Sandy. He opposed the bill because it did not offset the cost with spending cuts in other areas.
His decision upset some local citizens, considering Johns-town’s own history with devastating flooding.
Larry Stiles, a Johnstown resident who planned to challenge Rothfus in the 2014 GOP primary before health concerns forced him to withdraw, frequently criticized the congressman for his vote. “What if our district was hit with floods similar to those of 1889 and 1977 and the likes of Rothfus was in the majority? Sorry Johnstown, Rothfus would let you drown on a matter of principle,” Stiles said in October, the one-year anniversary of Sandy.
A lawyer from Sewickley, Allegheny County, Rothfus joined the lower chamber after defeating U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, by 3.5 percentage points. Critz became vulnerable when the GOP-controlled state government re-drew the 12th into a conservative district that Obama lost by 17 points, while carrying the state by almost 300,000 votes over the GOP candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, during the 2012 presidential election.
Rothfus’ victory made a historic impact locally. Johnstown had been represented in the House by one of its own citizens for more than six decades: Rep. John Saylor (1949-1973), Rep. John Murtha (1974-2010) and Critz (2010-2013). Murtha and Critz were Democrats, meaning Rothfus was the first Republican to represent the municipality since Saylor. Also, at least one Cambria County resident had been in the House every year since Susquehanna Township’s Joseph Gray became a congressman in 1935.
So, with a relatively unknown outsider representing the region, some local voters were concerned Cambria and Somerset counties might become afterthoughts, especially considering Rothfus’ connection to the more populated Allegheny County.
The congressman responded by opening an office in downtown Johnstown soon after taking office. He has attended major events such as Showcase for Commerce and Thunder in the Valley, and hosted several of his casual “Coffee with Keith” gatherings in the area.
“I think he’s done a great job in the Johnstown area,” said Robert Gleason, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party and a Cambria County resident. “He’s made a concerted effort to reach out to all the people.”
Rothfus faces a re-election campaign this year.
Critz considered challenging him, but ultimately decided to run for lieutenant governor instead.
Two other Democrats – Erin McClelland and retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. John Hugya – are attempting to unseat the incumbent.
Hugya served as Murtha’s chief of staff from 2003 until 2010 after holding other positions on his staff. The Somerset County resident feels Rothfus does not possess enough experience or knowledge of the 12th district to effectively be its voice in Washington.
“He is just not professional enough that I feel to sit in that seat and to be the congressman representing the 12th Congressional District,” Hugya said. “I can do a better job.”
McClelland, a lifelong resident of the Alle-Kiski Valley, northeast of Pittsburgh, is the executive director of an orthomolecular addiction treatment center called Arche Wellness.
“Congressman Rothfus and his ‘shut-it-down’ tea party continue to harm the hard-working people of the 12th district,” said McClelland. “His choices have been clear – tea party first, people last. Instead of focusing on the creation of well-paying jobs, protecting our steel industry from Chinese manipulation and guaranteeing veterans receive the hard-earned benefits they deserve, he voted to shut down the government, costing the taxpayers $2.4 billion and 120,000 jobs and cut food assistance to 170,000 veterans. The American people can no longer afford this level of negligence from Congress.”
Primary elections are set for May 20. If no other candidates enter the race, Rothfus will face either Hugya or McClelland in the general election.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.