Congressman's indiscretion endangers a GOP seat

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TUNKHANNOCK, Pa. -- This is the kind of place where the selection of prom queen makes front page news in the local paper, where minimum-wage jobs are aplenty but salaried positions are scarce, and where the local nursery school shares a building with the historical society.

Now the 2,400 residents of this hilly borough 20 miles north of Scranton are finding themselves in the national spotlight because of a hotly contested congressional race that has intensified because of an incumbent's extramarital transgressions.

Political yard signs now outnumber for-sale signs on Tunkhannock's mobile homes, airways here are filled with campaign ads, and President Bush made an appearance in nearby Factoryville to stump for the district's embattled Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood.

Until Mr. Sherwood's five-year extramarital affair came to light last year, it seemed certain voters in this Republican stronghold would keep returning him to D.C. as long as he wanted to be there.

Fifty-two percent of registered voters in the 10-county district are Republicans, 38 percent are Democrats and the rest are independent or members of minor parties.

"This is a House seat that should not have been in play because of the heavy Republican voter-registration edge but these indiscretions by Rep. Sherwood changed that," said Thomas Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Now, tension is heating up in Mr. Sherwood's hometown of Tunkhannock, a tiny borough that occupies less than one square mile of woodsy land in the shadow of Avery Mountain. It has become the battleground for the 10th House District race.

Blaine Falkena/Hazleton Standard-Speaker via AP
President Bush waves with U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood and his wife, Carol, at Wilkes-Barre-Scranton International Airport while stumping for the embattled Republican lawmaker earlier this month.
Click photo for larger image.   
Voters Guide -- General Election 2006   

"This area has never been so preoccupied with politics. It's really something," said Tunkhannock resident Phil Smiley, 51.

The 10th House District is one of the races to watch this election as Democrats try to capture the 15 additional seats they need to regain a majority in the House. That would put Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, in contention to become majority leader.

In the 10th District, the outcome could depend on public reaction to Mr. Sherwood's Clintonesque scandal. A central issue of the campaign has become Mr. Sherwood's admission that he carried on a five-year extra-marital affair that became public when the woman filed a $5.5 million lawsuit claiming he choked her. That suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

"Had Sherwood not used poor judgement, the Democrats would not have even considered investing in this race," Mr. Baldino said. "Now they have an opportunity to pick up a seat they didn't expect, and that makes it more realistic for the Democrats to foresee taking control of the House."

Until now, Mr. Sherwood has been on ground so solid that Democrats didn't even field candidates in the last two races. Before that, they put up Patrick Casey, son of former Gov. Bob Casey, but Mr. Sherwood prevailed. Redistricting prevented subsequent challenges from the Democratic stronghold of Scranton.

"It's always been a slam-dunk for Sherwood here," Mr. Smiley said. "He could have gone on forever" if he hadn't cheated on his wife.

Enter Democrat Chris Carney, college professor and former Navy Reserve intelligence officer who lives with his wife and five children in nearby Dimock.

Campaign season has never been this intense in Tunkhannock, said Mayor Norman Ball, a Democrat.

"The TV commercials are constant and they are terrible," he said. "If Mr. Sherwood didn't have these problems with his mistress and if he'd kept his nose clean, there probably would have been no real opportunity for anyone to challenge him."

Now Mr. Carney, a political newcomer, is ahead by 12 points, according to the most recent Keystone Poll produced at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

Ninety-one percent of registered voters polled had heard about Mr. Sherwood's affair and 21 percent said it makes them less likely to vote for him.

Outside the Weis supermarket in Clarks Summit, another part of the district, a group of employees on a smoke break said the affair has nothing to do with Mr. Sherwood's ability to legislate.

"He's got his faults; he's human, but he's done a lot for our area," said Kim Saxton, 35, of Factoryville.

The race was a topic of discussion during a Community Policing class at Lackawanna Community College Thursday and most students said the affair wasn't a factor, said Ashley Bobich, 19, who was in the class.

Back in Tunkhannock, 27-year-old Lucas Frey isn't so sure.

"When you're in politics, you're held to a higher standard. [Mr. Sherwood] is a representative of our area, and is that what we want in office?" said Mr. Frey as he finished waiting tables at Perkins, one of Tunkhannock's few chain restaurants.

Mr. Sherwood will likely get his vote, anyway.

"He's done a lot for the district, but you know he's in trouble now. Whenever you need to get the president to come down for you, you really need the help," he said.

Ron Azar, who has known Mr. Sherwood for 25 years, said the affair is personal business that doesn't belong in the public eye. It's between Mr. Sherwood, his wife and his three children, Mr. Azar said.

"If the guy doesn't do what you want, as far as helping the people he represents, then don't vote for him," he said. "That's what matters."

Supporters of Mr. Carney agree, too.

"The affair doesn't matter," Mr. Smiley said. "There are a lot of other issues. The economy is a big one. Look around here, the economy isn't booming. The only jobs here pay minimum wage and have no benefits."

Mr. Smiley is a Republican, but he'll cross party lines this election.

"My approach is to vote for everybody I don't know. I'm ready for a change," he said.


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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