Rep. Charlie Dent, ’93G, announced Sept. 7 he will not seek re-election in 2018 as the congressman for Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Lehigh alumnus has served the district, which includes Bethlehem and Allentown, since 2004.
Dent, who is in his 27th year of public service, said he decided to retire because it is the right time for him. He is 57 years old and said he remains in good health.
When he leaves the House, Dent will have served 28 years between his time in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Pennsylvania House, Pennsylvania State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Anthony DiMaggio, a professor of political science at Lehigh, met Dent at the Cultural Vistas Workshop last fall. He said he was not surprised by Dent’s decision not to run in 2018.
“He was very clear with communicating to the students at this event that he was not terribly happy with the direction that the Republican party has been moving,” DiMaggio said, “particularly under Donald Trump and with this idea that the Republicans need to be loyal to him.”
However, Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said he thinks the people of Bethlehem were surprised by Dent’s retirement. Donchez, a friend of Dent, said he too was surprised.
Two Pennsylvania state representatives, Ryan Mackenzie and Justin Simmons, have announced their candidacy for Dent’s seat. Dent said he has not endorsed a candidate at this time, but he had good things to say about Mackenzie.
“Justin Simmons would be a terrible choice in my view,” Dent said. “He simply doesn’t have the background knowledge, temperament or work ethic to be a congressman.”
On Sept. 6, Simmons, a conservative and one-time supporter of Dent, announced he planned to challenge Dent in the 2018 election.
“Dent has been on the wrong side of every major issue from ObamaCare, spending, border security and the list goes on,” Simmons said in a video on his campaign website.
As a moderate Republican in Congress, Dent said he has been involved in compromise and agreements that advanced the country on basic fundamental issues.
Dent is a co-chair of the Tuesday Group, an informal caucus of about 50 moderate Republicans in the House. The group was founded in 1994 to counterbalance a conservative GOP trend.
“As a leader of the so-called Tuesday Group, center-right Republicans, I’m often called in to help put together coalitions to pass or, in some cases, critique measures,” he said.
From 2015 to 2017, Dent was the chairman of the ethics committee, a group of five Republicans and five Democrats that enforces the House rules.
Dent said he is proud of the role he’s been able to play in the House.
“I have been able to build relationships on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Dent is not the only moderate Republican who has decided against running for re-election.
DiMaggio said the loss of Dent and other moderate representatives will contribute to the trend of political polarization.
Dent said this increasing polarization leads to paralysis in government.
“There are too many people in Congress who are very good at telling everyone what they can never do,” he said. “The most basic fundamental tasks of governing, like keeping the government open and not defaulting on our nation’s obligations, are becoming excruciatingly difficult to enact.”
Donchez said Dent’s retirement is a “big loss” for the Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem. He said Dent is well-liked and respected in the district, even among Democrats.
“He’s very accessible,” Donchez said. “You can sit down and talk to him even if you have a different point of view.”
Dent was among the House Republicans who voted against recent healthcare reform. DiMaggio said individuals protesting healthcare reform were happy about Dent voting against the bill and are concerned about the policy implications when he leaves office.
DiMaggio said a conservative candidate could mobilize people to protest.
“If you have a conservative candidate who pushes items like healthcare repeal that are very unpopular, then that definitely could have an impact locally,” he said.
Reynolds said because Bethlehem residents often vote for Democrats, community members will want an elected official who is a Democrat and increasingly progressive.
“Bethlehem is looking for someone who will provide progressive solutions to issues like protecting the environment, immigration and healthcare,” Reynolds said.
Donchez said he hopes the next representative will be a moderate who will work with both parties and advocate for cities.
Besides Bethlehem, the 15th District spans Allentown and further west to central Pennsylvania. Reynolds said Bethlehem and Allentown are more liberal, while west of Allentown is more conservative, creating an overall moderate district.
Dent was born and raised in the area, calling Allentown home for much of his life. He has a bachelor’s degree in international politics from Penn State and a master’s in public administration from Lehigh. In the past, he worked as a development officer for Lehigh.
Before his service in Congress, Dent served in the Pennsylvania State Legislature for 14 years, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for eight years and the Pennsylvania State Senate for six years.
Dent said his favorite part about working in Congress is meeting interesting people on a daily basis.
“You can go from meeting kings and presidents to interacting with homeless people and everything in between,” Dent said.
He said his least favorite part about the job, however, is the separation from his family.
Dent said he is looking forward to the next chapter of his life, although he doesn’t have any specific plans yet.