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Confident Saccone banks on votes for his experience in Dist. 18 race

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 3:45 p.m.

A week before the special election in the 18th Congressional District, Rick Saccone sat down confidently in an hourlong interview with the Tribune-Review editorial board, casting himself as the candidate with the experience to lead in an increasingly dangerous world.

Saccone, 60, a Republican state lawmaker and veteran Air Force officer from the Mon Valley, said his background as an intelligence officer and civilian contractor who has traveled to 75 countries, coupled with his work as an author, historian and a teacher at Saint Vincent College, gives him a unique and valuable world perspective.

The Elizabeth lawmaker once was considered a shoo-in to succeed Congressman Tim Murphy, a seven-term Republican incumbent who resigned in the fall amid reports that he urged his mistress to get an abortion when they thought she was pregnant.

Despite a Democratic registration edge in the district, Murphy had won his past two elections with no opposition, and voters there pulled the lever for GOP candidates in the last five presidential races and gave President Trump a near 20-point edge in 2016.

But Saccone, a staunch conservative who characterized himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” has seen a double-digit lead against Democratic newcomer Conor Lamb in early polls evaporate steadily, with the most recent independent poll showing the race dead even.

Saccone says his experience, which includes a yearlong stint in North Korea, where he represented a South Korean contractor working on a nuclear reactor, trumps anything Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor, can bring to the table.

“He has really no life experience at all. He has one political appointee job. He never worked in the private sector. I've had 40 years of life experience in education, diplomacy, the military, government and international business. There is no match for that. If this were any other race than a special election, there would be no contest,” Saccone maintained.

Saccone said his experience in North Korea uniquely qualifies him to sit at the table in foreign policy discussions that have grown increasingly tense.

His wife of 39 years, Yong, a native of South Korea whom he met while stationed there in the Air Force, sat beside Saccone, wrapped in an American flag shawl, beaming as he made his case. They have two grown sons, both military officers, and two grandchildren.

Saccone touts his record in Harrisburg, where he worked with a Republican majority to pass bills on the so-called Castle Doctrine, tort reform and property tax reform.

“I was one of the Spartans who held the line at Thermopylae in Harrisburg when the governor wanted a $5 billion tax increase,” he said.

Saccone also sponsored legislation signed into law in December, extending prosecutors' ability to use special subpoenas to identify child sexual predators on the internet and said he has been part of 12 bills lawmakers passed to address the opioid epidemic.

“I have a number of bipartisan pieces of legislation,” Saccone said.

A strong proponent of gun rights, Saccone opposes raising the age to 21 from 18 for purchasing rifles such as the one 19-year-old Nicholas Cruz purchased and allegedly used to kill 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. He said that would penalize returning young veterans and active service members who have fought for their country.

He said he would support arming trained teachers and school personnel to improve security, noted that the NRA will provide building security assessments for all schools at no cost and said many school employees likely would gladly provide their own guns to defend schools.

Although he's facing a tight race in the final days of the campaign, Saccone has snared more than $9 million in support from various Republican leadership PACs. Vice President Mike Pence and first daughter Ivanka Trump have made campaign stops for him, and he will celebrate a second campaign visit from Trump himself on Saturday.

Some Republican strategists have even suggested the president's vows to invoke tariffs to support U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturers may be timed to benefit Saccone, who said he lives across the Monongahela River from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.

Saccone said tariffs are needed to rein in foreign producers who have manipulated the markets in those industries. He confidently predicted consumers will notice virtually none of the price increases some economists and GOP leaders fear will result from a trade war.

And while Trump has wavered on the idea Russia meddled in U.S. elections, Saccone said he had no illusions about Vladimir Putin's government.

“Russians have always tried to meddle in our elections,” he said. “I know what I read in the media isn't always true or is only partially true.”

Saccone declined to disavow attack ads Political Action Committees are running against his opponent that paint a misleading portrait of Lamb's work as a prosecutor. Saccone said he is not responsible for those ads and he personally has run only positive ads.

As for the opioid epidemic, Saccone said he's done his part in the Legislature, but railed against the notion that government alone can end it.

“It's not just a legislative problem; it's not just a law enforcement problem,” he said. “It's an all-hands-on-deck problem. It's a community problem. It's a societal problem. It crosses all boundaries. ... I've ridden with police and ambulance. I've seen how it impacts people,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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