By John Latimer
A year and a half ago, Republican Dave Argall had no intention of running for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held for the past 18 years by Democrat Tim Holden.
A 12-term incumbent of the state House, Argall was preparing for a new challenge after winning a special election in March 2009 to fill the 29th state Senate District seat of Sen. James J. Rhoades, who had died in a car crash.
But as more and more people began urging him to run for U.S. Congress - from Republican Party leaders to Pottsville truck drivers - Argall began considering it. Watching actions unfold in the Democratic-controlled Congress as the health-care debate played out convinced him he could not sit idly by.
"I guess what it came down to is that I was so upset with the direction of the Congress," he said. "I really do believe that (Democratic Speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi and company are leading the country in the wrong direction."
There are several similarities between Argall and Holden beyond the fact that both want to occupy Pennsylvania's 17th District seat representing all or parts of Lebanon, Dauphin, and Schuylkill, Berks and Perry counties. It's a post that comes with a two-year term and annual salary of $174,000.
Each lives in Schuylkill County and has made a career as a lawmakers who prides himself on providing faithful constituents service and being able to work with members of the opposite party. They even agree on the hot-button issues of abortion and the Second
Amendment. Both are avid supporters of gun-owner rights and are solidly pro-life.
While they share views on other issues - including opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a cautious approach to the war in Afghanistan that places trust in the decisions of military leaders - there are plenty of differences that will define them for voters.
As a part-time political science teacher at the Penn State campus in Schuylkill County, Argall said he understands it will be tough challenging a long-term incumbent like Holden. The first step was winning his party's primary.
With the anti-incumbency climate stirred up by the tea party movement, it wasn't easy. In a rough, four-candidate race, Argall edged Cornwall accountant and retired Marine Frank Ryan by fewer than 1,000 votes.
That race depleted most of Argall's funds and put him at a tremendous financial disadvantage to Holden, which still exists in the campaign's final days.
"I knew he was sitting on a mountain of money and would attempt to smear me with a lot of TV ads, and that certainly has come true," Argall said.
Holden has spent $800,000 on television ads that began running in September. Some have focused on Argall's involvement in the legislative pay raise in 2005, when he was the party whip and a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
It is a tactic Argall was prepared for, and he doesn't duck the issue when asked about it. The Legislature eventually rescinded the pay raise, he noted, and money he was paid was given to charity. Argall also is quick to point out that he is not the only one who has voted to raise his own pay.
"Holden's breathless hypocrisy amazes me," Argall said. "He has voted for four raises. I voted for one. I've said mine was a mistake. I will not do it again. I did not get a nickel from my raise. And he has never given a penny back."
Money, in the form of the federal deficit, has also been at the center of Argall's campaign attacks against Holden. The Democrat's vote for the $787 billion federal economic-stimulus package was a mistake because the effort failed to lower unemployment, he said.
"In my mind, Congress spent $800 billion, and the unemployment rate is still horrific," he said. "I think it is 10.9 percent in Schuylkill County yet. And I don't know that any part of the district has seen the recovery that was promised, because of all the misspending."
Argall said he believes the economy could have been spurred more effectively by supporting businesses that create jobs.
"I think that cutting back on some of the regulations and letting the private sector do what it does would have helped," he said. "I think unleashing the private sector rather than this orgy of spending would have been a much safer bet in times like this."
Argall is for a comprehensive review of federal spending to cut the deficit. He recently finished chairing a state Senate Cost Cutting Committee that reviewed Pennsylvania's spending and found ways to save $400 million in the next three years.
He is also for keeping the President George W. Bush's tax cuts in place, including for top income earners. Increasing taxes kills jobs, he said.
"I think that they should be extended - period," Argall said. "One of the reasons that this economy continues to struggle is, I'm told by employers great and small that they are afraid to hire anyone because they don't understand what their health-care costs are going to be. They don't understand what Congress is going to do with the tax cuts. ... When an employer is faced with uncertainty, a lot of time the safest thing to do is nothing. And that doesn't help with the unemployment problem."
Although Holden voted against the health-care reform bill adopted by Congress, Argall has been critical of his failure to urge repealing it.
"I'm just frustrated that he was for it moving to the (House) floor. He was against it in final passage. And then he was against repealing it," Argall said. "In truth, neither one of us is happy with the bill as it is. But I've made a commitment to do something about it, and I don't think that he has."
Argall also blasted Holden for not holding regular town-hall meetings with constituents.
"I had my first town-hall meeting in 1985," he said. "It is something I generally enjoy doing. I think it is a great way to stay connected to people. And I think more members of Congress need to do that more often."
While Holden paints himself as a moderate Democrat when campaigning, Argall claims he is loyal to a fault to his party and its leaders. Statistics show that he has voted with Pelosi 95 percent of the time, he said.
"I'm convinced he talks one way in the district and votes another way down in Washington, D.C.," he said. "I think there is a very clear choice between me and the guy who has been doing the job the last 18 years. ... I think that the values that I represent are much more in line with the 17th District. If he voted consistently like the way he talks in Lebanon and St. Clair (his home in Schuylkill County), I'd probably be sitting at my desk in the Senate right now. That is what encouraged me to take this challenge."
Home: Rush Township, Schuylkill County
Family: Married, two children
Education: BA, political science/international studies, Lycoming College, 1980; Master's, American studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, 1993; Ph.D., public administration, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, 2006