Marburger taking 2nd shot at incumbent state Rep. Metcalfe
BUTLER — Joan Chew still lives in the house she grew up in on Center Avenue, on a corner lot with a six-foot white lattice fence around the yard, just a few blocks from the county offices where she worked for 16 years as county treasurer and two as county commissioner.
At 86, Chew remains rooted in Republican politics, the dominant brand in Butler County. She thinks this could be the year someone unseats incumbent Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the Cranberry firebrand whose far-right politics have earned him the loyalty of Pennsylvania's most conservative partisans and the enmity of almost everyone else.
Metcalfe faces a primary rematch from Gordon Marburger, a fourth-generation farmer and school bus driver whose 2014 write-in campaign came within 566 votes of booting Metcalfe from Harrisburg.
“I think with Gordon on the ballot, Daryl's got a problem,” Chew said. “It's a whole different ballgame.”
Marburger, whose tenure as a school board member and community college trustee have earned him a reputation as a public servant, was removed from the ballot after failing to file an ethics form, but his write-in campaign squeezed Metcalfe into the tightest margin of victory in his career.
And that's just fine with Chew, who is firmly in Marburger's camp. She groomed his wife, Diane, to succeed her as county treasurer and tangled with Metcalfe 10 years ago for supporting candidates he opposed.
While Metcalfe has “a loyal cadre of supporters,” Chew said, some Republicans are looking for someone with a better sense of the district.
She said Marburger is “honest. He's hardworking. I'll do whatever I can to help him.”
During his nine terms in Harrisburg, Metcalfe has made himself a statewide icon of the hard right. He is among the Capitol's staunchest gun rights advocates, having for 11 years hosted a Second Amendment rally of gun owners and their firearms on the front steps of the Capitol. His outspoken conservatism on social issues makes headlines. He once tried to prevent Philadelphia's Rep. Brian Sims from speaking on the House floor in favor of same-sex marriage.
Last fall, Metcalfe called a hearing to name English the official language of Pennsylvania and feuded with Philadelphia's Rep. Leslie Acosta, who spoke Spanish during the testimony.
Metcalfe went after Washington County Democratic Rep. Peter Daley during the budget fight in December, calling him a “ghost voter.” Daley has filed an intent to sue Metcalfe in Butler County court.
Butler County Republicans such as Chew are interested in less spectacle and more substance for folks at home.
In Metcalfe's district, communities are a patchwork of rolling hills, family farms, heavy industry and ever-growing suburban sprawl. The state's natural gas industry has bestowed money and growth to this part of Western Pennsylvania, particularly in Metcalfe's home base of Cranberry, a town that is becoming a northern destination for homebuyers leaving Pittsburgh in search of larger lots and lower taxes.
Unlike some of its neighboring counties, Republicans dominate the political conversation, making up about 52 percent of voters compared to Democrats at 34 percent.
But here, as in other places, not all Republicans think alike. And not all are fans of Metcalfe.
Back in 2013, Bill McCarrier, who at the time was chairman of the Butler County commissioners, urged Metcalfe to support a landmark state transportation funding bill they saw as a means to keep up with infrastructure needs accompanying growth in the county. McCarrier and his colleagues wrote to Metcalfe repeatedly, but Metcalfe steadfastly refused. The bill required an increase to the gas tax, and Metcalfe said he'd never voted for a tax increase and never would.
To McCarrier, this wasn't serving the best needs of the district.
“The people of Butler County pay taxes the same as every other county, and some of those tax dollars haven't come back to us,” McCarrier said.
He points to the redevelopment of Route 228, a major road that leads through Cranberry. Metcalfe “didn't do enough to get us the money,” McCarrier said.
“I like Daryl; I really do,” McCarrier said. “His philosophies are probably not much different than mine. We have a lot of things in common. I don't think he does enough to help the people of Butler County.”
Marburger said the district needs a representative who turns his attention away from social issues and toward problems closer at home.
“I do go along with his conservative beliefs,” Marburger said, “but a lot of the issues should be dealt with in the federal government, and not what he needs to be doing in the 12th District.”
Last cycle, Marburger campaigned on his support for the transportation bill that Metcalfe opposed.
This time, he plans to point to the low-tax record of the Mars Area School Board and his promise to refuse per diem payments for legislative expenses, a perk that Metcalfe has taken. Metcalfe took $11,354.96 in per diems in 2014, according to a Morning Call database.
The way Metcalfe sees it, those who say he hasn't done enough for his district aren't clear on the role of state government. His seniority as a committee chairman requires his time and energies in Harrisburg, he said, allowing him to lead on state laws while municipal officials handle local matters.
This year, Metcalfe is among the vocal opponents to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed tax hikes, and he's advanced bills to reduce the size of the legislature.
“This whole idea that a legislator should work like a mayor of an area is a fallacy they've tried to create in this district to run against me,” Metcalfe said. “I work very hard to represent the interests of the voters who have sent me to Harrisburg, to represent them and to ensure I'm working to protect their liberties and protect their pockets.”
Metcalfe sees Marburger's challenge as a Trojan horse for public sector unions, which oppose him and gave Marburger nearly $30,000 in 2014.
The AFL-CIO had its members door-knocking for Marburger's write-in before the 2014 primary.
“It's liberals versus conservatives. That's what it's going to be again in this primary,” Metcalfe said. “I think they figured out a Democrat doesn't work in this district; they're going to need to take me out in a primary, and that's why they backed my opponent.”
Rick Bloomingdale, head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said it's not so simple. There's no guarantee they will support Marburger this time around, he said.
“We don't like Daryl Metcalfe, but we're not going to trade somebody just as bad,” Bloomingdale said. “My goal isn't just to beat Daryl Metcalfe. My goal is to elect people who are going to support working families.”
Marburger said he didn't ask for the union support. They came to him, he said, sending money unsolicited to his campaign committee. Marburger said he followed up with a thank-you call.
“I told them I have some issues with unions; there's good and bad with everything,” Marburger said. “They knew I might not agree on everything they said, but at least they knew I'd be a person that would listen.”
If he hadn't done so well as a write-in, Marburger said, he wouldn't be running again.
“Since we had such a good showing, we honestly believe we could do it,” he said. Marburger speaks about his campaign in the plural, as he is aided by his wife, Diane, and their children, Reid and Madelynn.
This time, he's invested in the help of two lawyers from Harrisburg to make sure he “crosses the Ts.”
Ultimately the decision will come down to the people of the district.
For some constituents, Metcalfe's fiscal restraint is ideal. John Stilley of Amerikohl Mining, points to the “phenomenal” growth of Cranberry in recent years that hasn't required an excess of help from Harrisburg.
“I think Daryl represents that area very well without spending more than what needs to be spent,” Stilley said.
Don Rodgers runs Creative Real Estate Development Co. in Cranberry and has donated to Metcalfe in previous cycles. In his line of work, he often seeks grants that might require a letter of support from a legislator — but he knows better than to go to Metcalfe.
“I still support him, even though I can't go to him for a favor,” Rodgers said.
Bonnie Weaver, who served next to Marburger on the Mars Area School Board, said his name and reputation are well known, from his civic involvement and his wife's tenure as treasurer since 2000.
“I'm ready to see change,” Weaver said. “Sometimes because we are in Western Pennsylvania, we get lost. I think we need someone advocating.”
The candidates have eight weeks before the primary to mobilize and solidify their support. Onlookers expect a close race, including Jennifer Linn, an attorney in Butler who sits with Marburger on the Butler County Community College Board of Trustees and gave him $100 last cycle.
Linn said she's not “anti-Metcalfe,” but “pro-Marburger.”
She thinks he has a good shot of winning.
“He has a good reputation,” Linn said. “The Marburger name, it carries a lot of weight in Western Pennsylvania.”
Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.