Former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, ‘93G, delivers the 2020 Kenner Lecture on Feb. 11. Dent represented the Lehigh Valley in Congress for 13 years. (Annalise Kelloff/B&W Staff)

Q&A with Charlie Dent, former Republican congressman for the Lehigh Valley

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Former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), ‘93G, who represented the Lehigh Valley in Congress for 13 years through Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, has come out against the re-election of President Donald Trump and has alternatively voiced his support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In an interview with The Brown and White, Dent discussed his current political concerns and priorities, his support of Biden and his hopes for the future of the Republican Party.

Q: As we approach Election Day, what is the most important thing Pennsylvanians can do in addition to voting? 

Charlie Dent: The best thing they can do in addition to voting is exercising some level of patience. It may take some time to certify these results and there’s a good possibility that we might not have a final outcome — both in Pennsylvania and nationally. 

So I would just urge people to be very patient and understanding with all of these mail-in votes coming into Pennsylvania for the first time. Just have to recognize that we’re not going to have an immediate outcome. 

Q: Northampton County voted with Pennsylvania to support Trump in 2016. Do you have a sense of what the sentiment is like among Lehigh Valley voters as someone who represented this area in Congress? 

CD: Polling suggests that the president is struggling a bit in the Lehigh Valley, again based on these polls I’ve seen, two from Muhlenberg College, one from Franklin and Marshall and one from DeSales University, so I think it’s safe to say that the president appears to be behind in the 7th Congressional District.

“I just don’t want Pennsylvania of 2020 to be the Florida of 2000.”

 

-Former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who spent 13 years representing the Lehigh Valley in Congress

Q: What do you want to stress to voters heading into Election Day as someone who has come out against Trump?

CD: To me, this election is not about right or left, it’s about right or wrong, normal versus abnormal, stability versus instability, security versus insecurity. And I think that’s what we’re really talking about here is less about ideological matters or policy, but we need to change course. The president has demonstrated his unfitness many times over and I think it’s now time that we try to bring back some semblance of normalcy and in that regard, I think Joe Biden will be much better than Donald (Trump). 

Q: Do you support Biden, or do you just prefer him to Trump?

CD: Look, I will have some policy disagreements with Joe Biden, for sure, but like I said, this issue is about doing what’s best for the country and trying to steady the ship of strength. This instability and discord that the president has in many respects fueled needs to be reversed and I do believe Joe Biden will at least attempt to try to unify the country so we can get back to our lives.

I think people are tired of the chaos and drama that emanates from the White House, and they just want to get back to something normal, that the president won’t be dominating our news and our conversations day and night. 

Q: As a retired representative for Pennsylvania, what do you believe tend to be the biggest policy priorities on the ballot?

CD: Certainly dealing with the pandemic and turning our lives back to something more normal and the economy. Those are the issues that are really driving people right now. People are worried about their own personal security and stability. 

So many of our fellow citizens have lost their jobs or they may have lost loved ones and they just can’t interact with their loved ones as they would like. My mom is in assisted living, and I can’t visit her. All of our lives have been terribly disrupted by the pandemic and right now people want to see this pandemic addressed forcibly and seriously. Sometimes the president has taken a very cavalier attitude about the pandemic — taking the mask off on the balcony of the White House, downplaying the use of masks, understating the problem publicly. I think that has been a real problem.

Q: Pennsylvania, specifically Northampton and Lehigh counties, is extremely divided. What do you think contributes to such deeply polarizing viewpoints? 

CD: I think part of the polarization is media driven. People get their information from the sources they’re most comfortable with and that’s a challenge. Their views are basically reinforced, their existing biases and opinions are reinforced by a bit of an echo chamber and I think a lot of people don’t change the channel enough. 

Q: What do you think the future of the Democratic and Republican parties looks like?

CD: We’ve gone through a political realignment. Where Republicans had dominated in suburban areas for a long time, Democrats are now dominating there. Republicans have historically had advantages among college educated voters and that advantage has totally shifted to Democrats, and Republicans are doing much better among non-college educated voters. The Democrats have historically done a lot better among that population so we’re seeing changes.

The Republicans have to accept that there are demographic challenges facing the party. The challenge is that white voters as a percentage of the overall population (are) declining and they have to reach out more effectively to Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and others. There is also a gender gap with both parties. Republicans are struggling with women, Democrats are struggling with men. So Republicans are going to have to broaden their coalition and diversify. 

Q: What do you think it says that both the Trump and Biden campaigns made stops in our region the week before Election Day?

CD: Our area is critical. Obviously Northampton County went for Trump last time and Biden has to do everything he can to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Northampton County is a pretty good bellwether for the state. I have to go out on a limb here and say whichever candidate wins Northampton County is going to win Pennsylvania. And right now, based on polling, it seems as though Biden has a slight edge in Northampton County, but the only poll that really matters is the one next week. The big one. 

Q: Susan Wild or Lisa Scheller? Who do you think will win, who do you want to win? 

CD: I’m staying out of that race. I know both of them very well, for a long time, and I said I wasn’t going to get involved in that race. 

Q: No matter how this election plays out, many say we will be a nation divided. Do you agree? If so, how can we combat this? 

CD: I’m a lot less worried about voter suppression or fraud than I am about voter system failure. This is the first time Pennsylvania has moved to a wide scale, no-excuse absentee voting. This is our trial run. We have had over three million requests for absentee ballots in a state of 13 million people, so my concern is that something goes wrong. Not anything nefarious, but that it is going to take a long time to count everything. 

That’s the fear I have. They can’t start counting the ballots until Election Day. People are not going to put their ballot in the secrecy envelope, they’re going to forget to sign the outer envelope, there are all sorts of things that can potentially go wrong that we have to be concerned about. Votes being disqualified for one reason or another and the judicial challenges and legal challenges that are likely to ensue in the event we have a close election. 

Q: Pennsylvania Republicans have attempted to disrupt the state’s voting regulations five times, all of which have been overruled. What are your thoughts on this?

CD: The courts have ruled that they can accept mail-in votes up to three days after the election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, and I think that will help sort out some problems. People are going to be upset saying, ‘I put my vote in, I put my ballot in timely and it didn’t get counted,’ so that will help. I know there are a lot of people out there right now who say they applied for an absentee ballot late and haven’t received it yet so they are probably pretty upset and that is another challenge that we are dealing with. 

You just don’t know what could go wrong. I just don’t want Pennsylvania of 2020 to be the Florida of 2000. When they had the problem with the hanging chads, that was bad. We don’t want to be that state. This is the first time we’re doing mail-in voting in a substantial way, and it’s just a hell of a time to be the test case. 

Q: Despite your distaste for Trump, you identify as a Republican. The Republican Party has expedited efforts to push Amy Coney Barrett through to the Supreme Court. What are your opinions on her confirmation as well as discussions on packing the court in the event of a Biden victory?

CD: I think court packing would be a terrible mistake, I really really do. If the Democrats, should they win, I would recommend they do what the vice president suggests and set up a study to examine the federal court, but I would suggest this. Why not have a conversation about term limits, for federal judges, for Supreme Court judges? We could perhaps do an age limit on judges. In Pennsylvania we have an age limit of 75. I’m not saying that’s the right age, maybe make it 78. I think we should have that kind of conversation. 

I think that’s a better approach than trying to pack the court. Say what you will, but had the shoe been on the other foot and had one of the Republican justices died 50 days out from the election, they probably would have filled the seat. We know that. 

Q: Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey announced he will not be seeking re-election to the Senate in 2022. Has running to fill that seat crossed your mind? 

CD: No, I have no plans, I’m quite happy in the private sector. I’ll take a look at things after the election, but I have not made any plans to go back into government. But like I said, I’ll at least take a look at it. 

Q: What should the future of the Republican Party look like in your opinion? 

CD: The Republican Party has to become more socially tolerant and inclusive, that it needs to become more constructively engaged on the international stage, and that it should embrace free markets with modern and reasonable rules and regulations. 

I’d say finally, the party has to start having some real answers on issues like climate change and immigration instead of just attacking Democrats and AOC on the Green New Deal, which is really a very bad plan. We have to come up with answers other than complaining about the other side. 

If Republicans lose all three branches of government, the Senate, the House and the presidency, I think there’s going to be a reckoning of sorts. And were going to be having a more robust conversation about what the parties should look like, and I look forward to participating in that conversation. 

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3 Comments

  1. Charlie talks about right and wrong, why did he quit on his constituents in the middle of a term. There was no reason for him to walk out in the middle of a term an leave the seat open. He talks about supporting Biden and later talks about an age for judges at 78. Hmm, Biden is 78, sounds contradictory to me.

    • On the age question, it’s important to note that Federal judges are appointed for life – and by age 78 will usually have been on the bench for at least 20 or 25 years. The possibility of mental decline or pyschological problems is real, and no one is in a position to do anything about that, short of impeachment.

      Joe Biden is 78, it’s true, but he was also a candidate in 2020. We were in a position to assess his fitness for office in real time.

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