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George Will

George F. Will: Dent's departure makes Allentown vulnerable to Democrats

| Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
U.S. Rep. Charles 'Charlie' Dent, R-Lehigh Valley
U.S. Rep. Charles 'Charlie' Dent, R-Lehigh Valley

WASHINGTON

It is almost a law of our political physics: Those who choose to leave Congress thereby demonstrate qualities that make one wish they would linger longer. After seven terms in the House, which followed eight years in Pennsylvania's House and six in the state Senate, Republican Charlie Dent, 57, is moving on without knowing his destination.

He smilingly says he does not want to jeopardize his 13-0 record in elections, but that does not explain what is, in Washington's mentality, inexplicable: He is leaving even though he is one of 12 House “cardinals” who hold coveted chairmanships of Appropriations Committee subcommittees. Another eccentricity is that he is not angry about anyone or anything, not even the Senate, where so many House-passed measures die.

Dent has been a leader of the Tuesday Group of approximately 50 “moderate” Republicans, many of whom, including Dent, would thank you for not affixing to them that libelous label. (Dent likes “center-right.”) He comes by his Republican politics of (don't-say-)moderation by family tradition: His father's sister, born in Allentown, became Republican National Committee co-chairwoman in 1977, but was replaced in 1980 when she dissented from the GOP platform's strong opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Dent is leaving because he fancies — yet another eccentricity — trying a career outside politics, not because he sees difficulties for Republicans 10 months hence. He does, however, know there is a possibility that in 2019, House Republicans will be in the minority, a dismal experience. And that last November's elections for row offices in the “collar counties” around Philadelphia were disastrous for Republicans. And that Allentown's Democrat mayor, although under a 54-count criminal indictment for corruption, was re-elected, thanks to, among other things, Democrat turnout and support from the approximately half of the city's population that is Hispanic.

In 2016, Trump supporters voted, Dent thinks, for “an attitude.” He says, “If I set myself on fire over an issue, some of these people would complain that the temperature of the flame is not hot enough.” Trump won Dent's district with 51.8 percent of the vote. This will be one district Democrats target in their quest to gain 24 and reinstall Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

The Lehigh Valley district includes the city that might have been happier if Billy Joel had not immortalized it in his 1982 hit song: Well we're living here in Allentown/And they're closing all the factories down/Out in Bethlehem they're killing time/Filling out forms/Standing in line . This was 34 years before the presidential election in which Pennsylvania was the most important of the three states (with Wisconsin and Michigan) that had voted Democrat in eight consecutive presidential contests but changed — 34 years before the nation became fixated on working-class distress caused by deindustrialization.

In 1982, after his song's splash, Joel played a concert at Lehigh University (where Dent would be development officer, 1986-90) and was given the keys to the city by Allentown's mayor. The valley's population has increased about 33 percent since 1982 and its economy has diversified. Today, the district's largest employer, as in much of aging America, is a health-care provider. On a happier note, a large and venerable employer manufactures an addictive substance subject to abuse: Hershey.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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