Campaign 2012/West: Two offer different ideas to voters in the 15th House District

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In many ways, the candidates vying to represent Beaver County in the 15th House District are polar opposites.

Republican incumbent Jim Christiana, 29, has more experience inside the political arena than he does in the professional world.

Fresh out of Washington & Jefferson College in 2006, he served dual roles as a BMW salesman in Pittsburgh and the youngest councilman in Beaver Borough.

Three years later, he jumped to the state level, where the recently married Beaver native has represented the district since 2009.

His Democratic challenger, 56-year-old Bob Williams, boasts a 36-year career in real estate and no time in public office.

The Hopewell native, a grandfather who has been married more than three decades, serves as the federal political coordinator for U.S. Rep. Mark Critz -- a position he also held for the late John Murtha.

Mr. Williams alluded to the differences between himself and Mr. Christiana when he said he may lack experience as an elected official, but he makes up for it in life experience.

There are also marked differences in their platforms for the Nov. 6 election.

Mr. Christiana supports charter schools and a student's right to choose the best educational opportunity in a state system that he believes is in dire need of reform.

He championed a proposal to increase tax credits for businesses participating in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which provides scholarships for students to attend nonpublic schools.

The bill also created a parallel program providing scholarships to students from the state's lowest-achieving public schools to attend better-performing public or private schools.

"We put $50 million into the program and hopefully we can rescue thousands of kids from schools where they were trapped and are looking for a way out," Mr. Christiana said. "We need a more market-based approach to education, allowing the student to pick the best school for him or herself."

On the contrary, Mr. Williams doesn't believe problems in the education system can be solved with vouchers.

"We need to do away with the outside cyber schooling and put that money that we're spending back inside the school district and mandate that each school district have cyber schools," he said.

Mr. Williams, a Hopewell resident who is against public school dollars going to charter or cyber schools, said the current system forces public schools to blindly write a check to a cyber school without knowing the actual cost of education.

"If a school district can offer it, then they know how much it costs to educate that student," he said.

The candidates agree that the region's abundance of natural gas and a planned petrochemical plant have the potential to boost jobs, but they differ on how to go about welcoming the industry to the county.

Mr. Christiana proposed a successful bill offering more than $1 billion in tax credits over the next 25 years to Shell Oil Co. and other companies that locate ethane-processing facilities in Pennsylvania and buy ethane from local natural gas wells.

"Government has to get out of the way of job creators," he said.

He supported Act 13, a sweeping state law governing Marcellus Shale operations that mainstreams zoning across Pennsylvania.

His challenger believes gas well zoning rights should be given back to municipalities and that long-term effects of Marcellus Shale drilling need to be understood.

"This gas isn't going anywhere, we have it," Mr. Williams said. "I'm not trying to kill any business, because I'm a business partner myself, but it needs to be done with the right thought in mind."

About the candidates:

15th House District

Jim Christiana, Republican

Age: 29

Education: Bachelor of Arts in political science, Washington & Jefferson College

Occupation: State representative, 15th House District

Family: Wife, Jayann

Statement: "I have fought to make Pennsylvania more transparent, reform education and improve the business climate during my two terms as legislator. I hope I am privileged with another two years so I can continue to reform Harrisburg and work for the people of my district."

Robert Williams, Democrat

Age: 56

Education: Associate degrees in life science and business administration, Community College of Beaver County

Occupation: Settlement officer for Signature Settlement Services in Bridgewater; real estate agent for Howard Hanna Real Estate in Beaver; teaches real estate courses for Career Growth Real Estate Academy and for other real estate associations

Family: Wife, Louann (Zbihley); children, Jamie and Bobby; granddaughter, Madison

Statement: "I am about integrity and accountability. Recent budget cuts in school funding, medical assistance and women's health care harm Pennsylvania families. The push for voter ID and Act 13 are examples of rushed, poor legislative acts, not to mention they cost taxpayer dollars to defend. I bring integrity and accountability."

neigh_west - electionsmunicipal

Taryn Luna: tluna@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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