In The News

August 26, 2011

Dent hears constituents' fears first hand

By Colby Itkowitz, The Morning Call Washington Bureau

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent knocked on Phil Ritter's door and asked him if there's anything he needed.

"Yeah, you can find me a job," Ritter said.

With the afternoon sun beating down on the quiet neighborhood street in Macungie Thursday, Dent stood in Ritter's doorway for more than 10 minutes. Ritter, 56, told Dent that he'd worked for 10 years in furniture manufacturing and was laid off more than three years ago. Since then he's been out of work because he said no one will hire someone over 55.

"I've got enough money for three more months, then this house will be the government's," Ritter said.

Dent listened, he asked questions, but he didn't provide much policy insight. For nearly two hours the scene replayed as Dent walked door-to-door with three staff aides. Some constituents just thanked him for stopping by, while others, like Ritter, took advantage of the unexpected face time with their U.S. congressman. When Dent thought he could help, he asked his staff to take names to follow up.

Within this small snapshot of middle-class America, the uncertainty and frustration was palpable.

Barbara Hummel, 63, answered her door wearing oxygen tubes on her nose. She is on disability and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes it difficult to breathe. She told Dent she's worried about Social Security. Her bills are already tight, she said, and any cutback would "really devastate me."

Dent told her the entitlement would be protected for her, but the challenge is figuring out how the system will work for her children.

At another home, Robin Merritt, 54, had a similar complaint to Ritter's. After nearly 20 years working at Aetna, she received a phone call last winter that she'd been let go. Now her severance has run out and she cannot afford health insurance at $682 a month through COBRA. She's petrified to start looking for work again after being out of the job market for decades.

"I'm devastated," Merritt said.

Earlier in the week, Dent met with business leaders at a Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting. Tom Rooney, the owner of Express Employment Professionals, a staffing agency for full- and part-time job placement, said employers aren't looking at people who have been out of work for the full 99 weeks the government provides unemployment checks.

"There's no incentive right now for someone to work if they can make a decent living off unemployment," Rooney said. "Employers, when they see that resume that says 2009 is the last time they worked, they throw it away."

Ritter said he's been diligently trying to find work.

When Dent approached Harry Irvin's home, Irvin all but closed the door on him.

"You forced me to be a Democrat … all you care about is that Obama doesn't get elected," he said. "I think you're doing a horrible job."

Dent didn't engage him.

Once Dent walked away, Irvin, 62, a retired educator who said he'd voted for Dent in the past and recently changed his party from independent to Democrat, said he wouldn't vote for a Republican now if someone paid him $100,000.

Others were less forthright, but their frustration with the political system was still evident. John J. Gehman, 89, a retired economics professor at Moravian College, said the people in Congress "don't know what they're doing."

"The Republicans are the party of no and the Democrats are no party," he said.

Also Thursday, Dent walked Main Street in Emmaus going in and out of small businesses. At Armetta's Italian Restaurant & Pub, one of the owners, Brian Fey, told Dent that food costs are "astronomical" but "I'm not General Electric, I can't pass it off [to consumers]."

Fey said business is steady, but there's no new hiring or expanding. Still, he's generally optimistic about the United States' economy, but he said he wishes those down in Washington would start getting along.