ERIE, Pa. — Mike Kelly is proving to be an expert bartender on an unseasonably hot fall afternoon at the Irish Festival in St. Patrick's parish.
“You only have to tell him one time how to do things, and he’s an expert,” said Randy Bristello, a member of the parish and part of the organizing committee for the parish’s annual fundraiser.
Kelly is there along with Republican State Sen. Dan Laughlin and Bill Sabatini, the captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara, all part of a local celebrity bartender team for the annual festival that serves as the big fundraiser for the downtown Roman Catholic parish.
Dressed appropriately in an Irish green polo shirt, that sports his name and "For Congress" stitched in white and yellow across the left breast pocket, he is all smiles and efficiency. He doesn’t mention he is seeking re-election, but when people come up to grab a beer and talk to him about local issues, he answers confidently.
If one of them needs help with a federal issue, he quickly introduces them to a staff member on hand to get their information, with promises to contact them by Monday to guide them through how they can help.
Two years ago, when Kelly was seeking a fourth term, he faced no opposition.
“That never stopped me from doing all of the things I should be doing to remind voters why they placed me in office and to learn where congress was falling short on issues that faced the district, and how letting people know how we can help them with constituent services when they need it,” he said of a 2016 election year schedule with no opponent that looked no different than an 2018 election year with a heated opponent.
Which is exactly what he faces this year in his challenger Democrat Ron DiNicola — a former Marine, amateur boxer, and Harvard and Georgetown graduate who practices law in Erie. DiNicola barely lost a bid for Congress two decades ago to Phil English, who in turn lost to Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, who in turn lost to Kelly.
“The local Pittsburgh television station actually called the race for me that night,” said DiNicola, whom I caught up with by phone after Monday night’s debate. “Ultimately, I did not win,” he deadpans.
In that race, English was able to draw out big numbers in the exurbs to counter DiNicola’s solid numbers in Erie — which is part of what the Democratic challenger is attempting to do this time, and part of why he said he decided to run. “Once I saw that Erie was re-united as a county, as well as Crawford, in one district, I decided to run,” he said of the new, court-drawn 16th Congressional District.
DiNicola also believes this time he can win over those rural voters.
The Democratic-majority Supreme Court created this new district after ruling the previous Republican-drawn map was unconstitutional. The new map cut Kelly's home county of Butler in half; it also includes the northwestern counties of Crawford, Lawrence, and Mercer counties.
In its new form, this is the kind of seat that could be caught up in a tsunami like the one the Republicans had over the Democrats in 2010, but in a minor wave, this seat is a reach for Democrats.
In real-time polling done by a partnership between Siena College and the New York Times Upshot, Kelly is ahead.
After 20,000 calls into the district, 494 people responded, showing Kelly with a healthy 50 to 42 lead.
DiNicola and Kelly met for the first and only debate scheduled between them Monday evening at Mercyhurst University in Erie.
DiNicola is running in a district that voted happily for Trump, but unlike other Democrats who are running in swing districts the contract lawyer — who has celebrities and athletes as clients across the country — he says he doesn’t criticize them for their vote. Instead, he finds places to agree with them on Trump.
“My approach to the president is: If he is pursuing good things for Western Pennsylvania, then I’ll agree with him. If he is pursing things that hurt Western Pennsylvania, I won’t,” he said.
DiNicola agrees with Trump’s position on making trade schools a centerpiece in American higher education and his punishment of China. “China has been ripping us off for years,” he says.
“But I am not running for or against Trump. I am running against Kelly, and his record is deplorable,” he said, pointing to his support for the tax cuts, which DiNicola said directly benefit Kelly’s car dealership. DiNicola also blasts Kelly's support for lifting regulations on the fracking industry, which he says benefits Kelly’s gas companies.
DiNicola says he’d have to see how he would vote on more tax cuts if elected. “Depends on whether the middle class gets a fair shake,” he said.
And on fracking, he says he supports the exploration and development “as long as there are common sense regulations based on good science.”
Kelly, a former Notre Dame football player, has run his family’s car dealership since his father retired decades ago. He is warm, and both affable and serious at the same time.
He is running an exhausting schedule, beginning the morning at a parade, with two other events squeezed in before the parish festival, then off to three more to complete the day.
Kelly never looks tired, while his staff (half his age) sometimes struggles to keep up with his pace.
Just one day ahead of President Trump making a visit to Erie, a county Trump won and helped flip Pennsylvania away from the Democrats, making him the first Republican to win the state since 1988, Kelly says he is running on the things people care about most: improving their communities through jobs and opportunities.
“It's about jobs. It's about the economy. It's making sure that people don’t just feel but know that they have an opportunity. And I think it is very important that people are prepared for the jobs of the future, so that they are ready for new job opportunities; part of that comes down to education. Are we educating people for the jobs that are available, or are we just hoping something comes along?” Kelly says of preparing folks and young people for jobs of the future in the region.
“Trade schools are very important. Any type of skilled labor is very important. Up here, where we are at, there's a lot of machinists. Okay? They can't find people, and a lot of their folks would like to retire, but if they retire, there's nobody to take their place. And so, they're working longer. These are some of the opportunities opening up for young people, but we have to teach them the skills," he says. "You can move up that ladder very quickly and really establish a nice lifestyle for yourself, your family, community, your schools, and your churches."