Candidate Lamb says he's learning from electorate
Folding his hands and leaning forward earnestly during an hour-long question-and-answer session Thursday with the Tribune-Review editorial board, Conor Lamb, the 33 year-old Democrat seeking victory in the March 13 special congressional election, cast himself as the standard-bearer of a new generation intent on breaking political gridlock in Washington.
Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor from Mt. Lebanon, was a virtual unknown when he entered the race last fall after the seat in the 18th Congressional District opened unexpectedly when Republican Congressman Tim Murphy resigned amid reports he had urged his mistress to have an abortion.
Although Donald Trump carried the district by 20 points, a recent independent poll had Lamb within three points of the Republican state lawmaker Rick Saccone, a fellow military veteran and conservative who describes himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
And earlier this week, the Cook Political Report moved the race from “leans Republican” to “toss up.”
Lamb, who defines himself as the quintessential Western Pennsylvania Democrat — an independent, socially conservative, union-backed candidate unaligned with the national party — told the Trib's editorial board that he will answer first to the residents in the suburbs and back-road villages of the district, which runs from the South Hills of Allegheny County through Greene and portions of Washington and Westmoreland counties.
He said voters have told him repeatedly that they want to see an end to gridlock in Washington and reiterated his vows to oppose another term in leadership for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi .
“I come from the military school of thought, that if you don't get things done you get relieved, and I think that has to apply to Nancy Pelosi and (Republican Speaker) Paul Ryan,” Lamb said, referring to his time as an attorney with the Judge Advocate General's Office in the Marine Corps. It's a reference he makes frequently on campaign stops in a district with a heavy population of veterans.
Lamb said issues that top his priority list include:
• Instituting an infrastructure program to address the failing bridges and locks and dams.
• Shoring up Medicare and Social Security, in part by increasing the cap on Social Security deductions.
• Taking a comprehensive approach on the heroin epidemic, including providing a 90-day treatment program for addicts, launching a beefed-up attack on heroin and synthetic opioids from China and Mexico, and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for the economic ravages.
• Supporting safe, well-regulated natural gas development.
• Strengthening background checks on gun purchases through a system of universal background checks on firearms purchases, such as those proposed by the failed Manchin-Toomey bill.
Running in a district that is top-heavy on hunters and gun collectors, Lamb said he's not buying into recent proposals to ban certain weapons.
“The laws we have on the books are pretty good. … Our enforcement of background checks is pretty flawed. ... We need to put teeth and enforcement into those laws,” he said.
“I don't have a relationship with the people of the national party on the issue of guns. I have a relationship with the people of Western Pennsylvania,” the Los Angeles Times quoted him during a recent event.
While he stopped short of criticizing Saccone, Lamb was less complimentary about the attack ads that outside groups have been airing, questioning his effectiveness as a prosecutor. Recent reports have estimated conservative and party-backed Republican super PACs have spent $7 million on such ads.
“They're not just misleading. These ads have lies in them,” Lamb said, noting that his onetime boss, former U.S. Attorney David Hickton, has repudiated attacks on his work as a prosecutor.
“These outside groups have run these same ads all around the country. We've seen candidates disavow them, but we haven't seen my opponent do it yet. I would hope he would.”
Lamb conceded that he remains critical of the Trump-backed tax cut. A middle-class tax cut could have been achieved without raising the debt simply by closing loopholes, he insisted.
“Warren Buffet shouldn't be paying less tax than his secretary, and he'd be the first to tell you that,” Lamb said, quoting the elderly billionaire who founded Berkshire-Hathaway.
The grandson of the late Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Tom Lamb, the clean-cut former Marine from Mt. Lebanon was educated at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh and the ivy league University of Pennsylvania.
He said he's gained a respect for the concerns of people in the district during a campaign that has taken him into countless homes, fire halls and VFWs.
An elderly man he met last week summed up the trust people are seeking, Lamb said.
He described a 77 year-old man — “Western Pennsylvania through and through” — who had worked from age 12, was downsized from a job with a textbook publishing company. He found a job as a janitor, then sustained a shoulder injury lifting garbage cans. Lamb said his new acquaintance told him he began collecting Social Security at 65 but continues to work every day to pay for supplemental insurance.
“He pulls out his key ring. … Like most janitors, it held a lot of keys and the other thing it held was his dog tag from when he served in the U.S. Army,” Lamb said. “He wanted me to touch it, and when I did, he looked me square in the eye and said: ‘Don't you break your promise to me. We paid for these programs. Protect them.'”
“That's what I learned,” Lamb said.
Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political scientist Terry Madonna said the political education of Lamb could make a difference in the race that was once ruled out of reach for Democrats.
“There is no doubt this race could go anywhere. I'd still be stunned if Saccone doesn't win, but you can't rule out a Lamb victory,” Madonna said.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib