It's a bare-knuckles campaign, so to speak, in the 56th Legislative District, where a political newcomer is trying to unseat first-term Republican state Rep. George Dun- bar of Penn Township.
Mr. Dunbar and the Democratic challenger, Raymond "Bud" Geissler Jr. of Irwin, are waging grass-roots campaigns with a heavy emphasis on door-knocking. They have differing views on education funding, privatizing state liquor stores and regulation and taxation of the shale gas industry.
The district, comprising Irwin, North Irwin, Jeannette, Penn Borough and most of North Huntingdon and Penn Township, had 40,905 registered voters as of early October, of which 20,595 were Democrats and 16,086 were Republicans.
Mr. Dunbar, who knocked off seven-term incumbent Democratic Rep. James E. Casorio Jr. two years ago, has preached fiscal conservatism after eight years of what he called "out-of-control spending" during the Rendell administration.
He was the first freshman this session to get a bill he sponsored signed into law: giving counties the ability to abolish the elected office of jury commissioner.
"These things are all done by computers these days," he said, asserting that the jury commissioner office was little more than a patronage job.
A certified public accountant, Mr. Dunbar authored a change to the tax code to eliminate penalties for people who had no taxable income the previous year but failed to pay estimated tax on a liability for the current year. The change primarily benefits senior citizens, he said.
As a symbol of his fiscal restraint, he refused a state-paid car and per diems. He is reimbursed only for mileage to and from Harrisburg and overnight hotel stays while the House is in session, submitting actual receipts rather than pocketing the $163 to $185 per session day given to other lawmakers.
But when Mr. Rendell's successor, Gov. Tom Corbett, presented a budget that trimmed the state's contribution to basic education, Mr. Dunbar, whose oldest daughter is a teacher, drew the line, helping to block the proposal.
Critics, including Mr. Geissler, believe the Legislature shortchanged school districts when it didn't replace federal stimulus funding that had expired.
Mr. Dunbar defends the education budget, saying "there are more state dollars going to education now than any other time in history. Would I like it to be more? Certainly. We have to deal with what we have."
"The quality of education is pivotal for growth in the community," said Mr. Geissler, who said he favors more state aid.
Mr. Dunbar's name surfaced recently in an unusual lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Linda Kelly, accusing a McKeesport company of violating requirements to use American-made steel in state-funded projects. Mr. Dunbar, former controller and CEO for the company, Ryco Inc., was mentioned in the suit but not accused.
He said he wasn't closely involved in day-to-day operations while at the company and would not have known if somebody was buying foreign rather than U.S.-made steel.
Mr. Geissler, operator of a tour service for students, said he is making his first run for public office because "I really felt like our district lost its voice over the past two years. I want to be active in the community, a resource to the community."
In addition to door-knocking, he has made a point of showing up at community events, ranging from a fishing derby to a pumpkin festival to several high school football games.
"We're letting people know there's a viable opponent. They can shake my hand, look me in the eye and ask me any question they want," Mr. Geissler said.
He criticized Mr. Dunbar for not being visible enough in the district, saying he's heard that complaint frequently in his door-to-door campaigning. Mr. Dunbar said he has tried hard "to maintain the standards [for constituent services] set by my predecessor. We've gone out and worked very hard" to educate citizens about state programs and to make sure the district gets its share of state funding.
The two have opposing views about privatizing state liquor stores. Mr. Geissler said "we have a good system in place" that has improved because of recent changes.
Mr. Dunbar would sell the stores and put the proceeds into the state's ailing pension fund, saying "nobody can convince me that the private sector can't do it better than the state."
Mr. Geissler favors "responsible" taxation of the state's growing shale gas industry and does not believe the impact fee approved by the Legislature, $50,000 per well for most wells this year, is sufficient.
Mr. Dunbar was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote against Act 13, which imposed the impact fees. He said he was opposed to the state usurping local control over zoning of the industry, but also objected that the measure treated shale gas drilling differently from other industries.
Asked about transportation funding, Mr. Geissler said he was concerned about rapidly rising tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which crosses the legislative district. He said he was unfamiliar with Act 44, the 2007 state law that requires the turnpike to pay $450 million per year to PennDOT for non-turnpike transportation purposes.
Mr. Dunbar said the state needs a new, dedicated funding source for roads and bridges, saying Act 44's requirements have the turnpike "going backwards financially."
"We have turned a blind eye toward transportation needs for years," he said. Where the money would come from is "hard to say" until Mr. Corbett advances his proposal to generate new dollars, he said.
Mr. Dunbar said he is open to the possibility of inflationary increases to some fees like vehicle registrations, which haven't changed since 1997, but is opposed to a principal recommendation of the governor's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission to erase an artificial cap on the tax paid by gasoline wholesalers.
One possible generator of new transportation revenue, he said, is an overhaul of the state's budget process. Instead of automatically renewing programs at or near the previous year's funding levels, he said, lawmakers should assess the outcomes of each program and base the budget on results.
Both candidates said they favor reducing the size of the Legislature.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.