HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- John and Norma Belin walked into state Senate candidate John Eichelberger's campaign office on Allegheny Street, two blocks from the stately Blair County courthouse.
The two senior citizens used to vote for their longtime senator, Bob Jubelirer, but no longer. Now they're on the "I like Eich" team and will vote in the May 16 Republican primary for challenger Eichelberger, an insurance salesman and Blair County commissioner since 1996.
The Belins say Mr. Jubelirer, who was first elected to the Senate in 1974 and is one of the most influential legislators in Harrisburg, doesn't pay much attention anymore to the 30th District, a charge Mr. Jubelirer strongly denies.
The Belins are like many other conservative folks in this rural Central Pennsylvania district, which stretches from north of Altoona to the Maryland border.
They remain resentful about Mr. Jubelirer's strong support for the legislators' 16 percent to 34 percent pay raise, which was enacted without debate shortly after midnight July 7. It increased his pay to $145,000 a year from $108,000.
"You either have good character or bad character," Mr. Belin said. "It's important that you do the right thing when people are looking, but it's even more important that we do the right thing when nobody is looking."
After a sustained public uproar, Mr. Jubelirer apologized for the pay raise, helped lead the repeal effort in November and returned his four months of higher pay. But for many people, it was too little, too late. They're also upset that his wife, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, was in line for a raise from $145,000 to $162,000 under the now-repealed law.
But Jordan Baylinger, a senior citizen from nearby Duncansville, disagrees. Mr. Baylinger was volunteering last week at Jubelirer headquarters, just down the street from the Eichelberger office.
"I know people are upset about the pay raise," Mr. Baylinger said. "But if they look at the entire picture, they shouldn't hold it against him. He's done so much good for this district and he's a compassionate and hard-working man."
Mr. Jubelirer has been in office for more than 30 years and has faced primary opposition only once, in 1978. He is touting his long leadership experience in Harrisburg and his history of bringing home the bacon.
His campaign literature talks about getting $4 million for the new Fulton County Medical Center, $10.8 million for the Blair County ballpark, $17 million for the county's convention center, and money for industrial parks in Bedford County and restore the Bedford Springs Hotel.
Those three counties, along with Huntingdon County and one township in Mifflin County, make up the 30th District.
Political observers consider Mr. Eichelberger to be the biggest threat May 16 to the incumbent, but he's not the only challenger. The third candidate in the GOP race is C. Arnold McClure, 59, a farmer and publisher of the Valley Log, a weekly newspaper in Huntingdon County.
Some politicians wonder if Mr. Jubelirer persuaded Mr. McClure to run in order to split the anti-Jubelirer vote and boost the senator's re-election odds. But Mr. McClure says that's not true, and even Mr. Eichelberger said he didn't think Mr. McClure was just a spoiler.
Mr. McClure said the pay raise caused him to run.
"The pay raise exposed the arrogance of our political system. If voters are not motivated to make a change in Harrisburg this time, then our democracy is in danger."
The Jubelirer race is being closely watched statewide. G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin and Marshall College, calls it "one of the marquee races that will tell whether reform takes hold at the Capitol."
If some incumbents lose, he said, "then the reform movement will continue, with continued debate over how the Legislature operates."
But if all the longtime incumbents who are being challenged this year are re-elected, he added, "Then the reform movement is dead and life in Harrisburg will go on as usual."
Mr. Eichelberger, 47, said he rarely had to bring up the Jubelirer pay raise during conversations with voters. "They bring it up themselves."
But there are reasons other than the pay raise that Mr. Jubelirer, 69, is facing the race of his political life.
The 30th District contest is a snapshot of the larger split in the Pennsylvania Republican Party, a division which became evident in 2004, when then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey almost knocked off longtime U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter.
Mr. Toomey remains a hero to the right wing of the Republican Party. He has endorsed Mr. Eichelberger.
And while Mr. Jubelirer has the power of incumbency and is seen as the Republican "establishment candidate," Mr. Eichelberger isn't exactly a rookie. He's been a commissioner for more than 10 years, is a former Blair County GOP chairman and is backed by some heavy hitters, such as Mr. Toomey and former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton.
Mr. Eichelberger also has support from GOP conservatives outside the district. Chris Lilik, a Toomey ally and head of Harrisburg-based Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, has been running radio ads critical of Mr. Jubelirer. Glenn Meakam, founder of the former Free Markets in Pittsburgh, is also a wealthy out-of-district Eichelberger supporter.
And a wealthy southeastern Republican, real estate investor Bob Guzzardi, has funded two Eichelberger polls, including one early in 2005 which showed Mr. Jubelirer was vulnerable.
Another factor in the race is the always-touchy issue of abortion. Mr. Eichelberger maintains he is and always has been strongly "pro-life," or opposed to legalized abortion.
Mr. Jubelirer once supported abortion rights but said recently that his position had "evolved" over the past 15 years. He was just rated as "pro-life" by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.
Other issues in the fray include what Mr. Eichelberger said was the incumbent's "support for the three biggest tax increases of the past 15 years."
They include former Gov. Robert P. Casey's effort increasing the personal income tax in 1991, former Gov. Tom Ridge's increase of the state gasoline tax in 1996 and Gov. Ed Rendell's increase of the income tax again in 2003.
Mr. Atkinson said the senator stands by his gas-tax vote and opposed Mr. Rendell's original proposal to increase the income tax to 3.75 percent. He did, however, vote for the smaller increase after a six-month holdout in 2003.
The Jubelirer camp has criticized Mr. Eichelberger for abstaining from 100 votes as a county commissioner in order to avoid a conflict of interest with his part-time job as an insurance salesman.
Mr. Eichelberger said 75 percent of the votes he abstained on concerned county insurance for vehicles of Blair Senior Services, a ride program for the elderly whose insurance he handles. He said he would turn over all insurance matters to other people if elected senator.
Jubelirer radio ads also criticize Mr. Eichelberger's increase in salary during his 10 years as commissioner, from $41,501 in 1996 to $58,822 this year. Mr. Eichelberger said that 41 percent increase over 10 years was nothing compared with the 34 percent increase that Mr. Jubelirer would have gotten for one year under the now-repealed legislative pay raise.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at 717-787-4254 or email@example.com .