In 16th Dist. race, Democrat Pastore: Kelly sues to stop mail-in ballots, 'disenfranchises' voters

He'd never run for public office before and had achieved success as a small business owner and lawyer.

But when Fairview Township resident Dan Pastore learned his representative in Congress had sued to void the mail-in ballots cast predominantly by Democrats in the 2020 presidential election and to halt the certification of the vote, he knew his time had come. Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, he said, had tried to "disenfranchise his own constituents."

US House race:Seeking 7th term, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly details priorities, responds to controversies

More: Abortion, inflation, voting, energy, Dan Pastore answers voters' questions

"That was enough to put me over the edge," said the 63-year-old Pastore, the Democratic nominee attempting to oust Kelly from his 16th District seat and deny him a seventh two-year term.

"Taking that type of action should not go unchallenged," Pastore said about Kelly's lawsuit and his subsequent vote on Jan. 6 to oppose the certification of Pennsylvania's 18 Electoral College votes, which helped deliver the presidency to Joe Biden.

The 16th District, which now consists of Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence and Butler counties and the western portion of Venango County, is a tough district for Democrats, who last won here when Kathy Dahlkemper — like other Democrats — rode into office on the coattails of Barack Obama in 2008. Kelly defeated her two years later.

'An undeniably difficult district' for Democrats

The Cook Political Report considers it a "solid Republican" district and gives the party a 13-point advantage.

Erie County Democratic Party chairman Jim Wertz believes his party has a chance, though, and that it's been making strides over the past two cycles.

Guest column: Pastore a small business owner running to protect jobs, cut costs, solve problems

Erie lawyer Ron DiNicola had connections within the party to get support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when he ran for a second time in 2018. And Kristy Gnibus brought a compelling story of being an educator, single mother and cancer survivor when she tried unseating Kelly in 2020, helping her outperform President Joe Biden in each precinct in the 16th District, Wertz said.

Pastore brings his own unique advantages to the race, Wertz said.

"It's an undeniably difficult district to win," he said. "Democrats have won this district once for one term for most of our lifetimes, but I don't think it's unwinnable — I'm an optimist — but there are a couple of variables that have to be in place.

"One of those is having a great Democratic candidate, which we do, and somebody who is able to speak not just to the issues of the 16th District, but the people of the district, who trend more conservative, trend more rural and have a different set of needs, wants and expectations from their elected officials."

The voters of the 16th District, Wertz noted, also make up the greatest concentration of Pastore's customers at his business, FishUSA, an online retailer for fishing supplies. Kelly, he noted, has tried to "play up" his small business credentials in a similar vein.

"You see 'Kelly Automotive' up and down I-79 on the backs of cars," he said. "Every angler in western Pennsylvania has had some relationship with FishUSA and they know Dan as part of that. The trick for Democrats is connecting those customers with Dan as their candidate."

Dan Pastore, president of FishUSA is shown, Nov. 18, 2015, at the Fairview Township business.
Dan Pastore, president of FishUSA is shown, Nov. 18, 2015, at the Fairview Township business.

Erie County native, online entrepeneur

Pastore was born and raised in Erie County and worked for his family's construction company as a young man. After high school, Pastore attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, receiving a bachelor's degree in economics in 1980. Five years later, he got his law degree from the Pittsburgh School of Law. He became a partner at an Erie firm, where he practiced real estate and commercial law at the state and federal levels.

In April 1986, Pastore married Melissa Graf. The couple, now married for 36 years, have three children.

In 1994, Pastore's career path changed when he co-founded the first public internet service provider in Northwest Pennsylvania, erie.net.

Before selling erie.net, Pastore also founded FishErie.com, the first website that focused on fishing in the region, and in 2000 he co-founded FishUSA, which has offices, a warehouse and pro shop in Erie County. The company employs 60 people.

Pastore, who is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys, hunting, fishing and hiking, has served as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission since June 2019.

Legislative priorities

Above all policy positions, Pastore wants to work in a bipartisan way and be "less divisive than our current representative."

He would also meet in person with all constituents, even those who don't vote for him, to hear their concerns, he said. Kelly, he said, has relied too heavily on telephone town halls.

Bolstering the workforce in the district would be his top job.

"I do want to focus on trying to bring back jobs to the region, that would be my number one priority," he said. "We're still losing population because we're losing good-paying jobs.

"I think it's 'all the above,' but we would certainly like to bring back manufacturing jobs," he added. "There are tremendous opportunities in the clean energy sector. These are the jobs of the future. There's a lot of new jobs being created in these fields, and trying to bring some of those jobs to our region would be something that I would work hard for."

Pastore would focus on wind, solar, battery technology, a hydrogen hub and the businesses that support those energy jobs including research and development.

He said Wabtec, formerly GE Transportation, is a good example. The company is creating hybrid locomotives with new battery technology, he noted.

"That's the type of new jobs that we need to continue to bring to the region," Pastore said.

Inflation

Unlike his opponent, who blames inflation on the policies of President Joe Biden, Pastore said inflation is a global problem. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute agrees, saying arguments that attribute the rise in inflation to the Democratic president's policies are "deeply misleading."

Pastore said steps have been taken to address "bottlenecks in the supply chain" that have contributed to the supply-and-demand problem.

"That should provide some relief," Pastore said.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed into law in late August, also addresses the issue by reducing the cost of prescription drug for people with Medicare, Pastore said, but those provisions don't start until 2023, when drug companies will be required to issue rebates for medicine if the cost has outpaced inflation and the cost of insulin, for example, will be capped at $35 for Medicare recipients. Other changes will be phased in over several years.

"Unfortunately, that's not going to have an immediate impact," he said.

Pastore said the U.S. needs to increase domestic production of oil and gas to bring down fuel prices and make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.

Energy policies

At an October campaign meet-and-greet at Cellar 54 in North East, Pastore introduced himself to attendees, talked about his background and his stance on key issues. One supporter's hand shot up as Pastore concluded his remarks: "Where do you stand on fracking?" he asked.

It was the only question directed to Pastore as the crowd of supporters stopped mingling to focus on the candidate.

"This is a difficult issue and there's some real differences in opinion," he responded. "The question of climate change has been resolved years ago. We have to move to a clean-energy economy. We have to wind down burning fossil fuels as fast as we possibly can. I see that as an economic opportunity here in our district because that is already happening.

"We're seeing it in the auto industry already," he continued. "They're moving to electric vehicles faster than the government's even regulating that. We can either get out ahead of it or we can be behind it. These are going to be the jobs of the future and I want to see those jobs come here to the district."

Social Security and Medicare

The Social Security Board of Trustees in June released its annual report on the financial solvency of the Social Security trust fund, which showed that the fund will be able to meet its obligations for the next 12 years, but after 2034 it will only be three-quarters funded.

The Medicare Board of Trustees' annual report, also issued in June, showed a rosier, but still grim outlook than it did in 2021. Medicare's Part A trust fund is now projected to be depleted in 2028 instead of 2026. Medicare Part A covers inpatient hospital, nursing home, skilled nursing, home health and hospice care for 63 million Americans age 65 and older. With incoming revenue alone, Medicare Part A will be able to cover just under 90% of benefits from 2029 to 2031.

Bloomberg, New York Magazine and others reported that Republicans plan to propose cuts to both safety net programs by using debt-ceiling negotiations next year to force such concessions out of Democrats — if the GOP regains control of the House in November's midterm election.

"On Social Security, we have made a promise to the retirees that that would be available for them when they retire, and that we have to meet that obligation," Pastore said. "I don't think we should turn it over to Wall Street to manage it. It should remain the way that it is today. And the same with respect to Medicare.

"That is something that is critical to many people in the district," he added, "and I would not be in favor of turning that into a voucher system or privatizing it."

Abortion

Pastore has been clear on his position about abortion since he launched his campaign and since the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that enshrined abortion as a right under the U.S. Constitution.

Pastore would support legislation that protects access to abortion nationwide.

But he would also vote to codify other issues that could be under threat. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that other issues that were once decided by individual states should be revisited by the courts including same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and the right to access contraception.

"These are rights that exist today under Supreme Court precedent, but we just saw in the Dobbs decision (Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization) what can happen if we rely on Supreme Court precedent," Pastore, a non-practicing lawyer, said. "And the rationale from the Dobbs decision could be applied to the other Supreme Court decisions that have enshrined these rights through those court decisions. We have some congressional action to undertake because those rights are similarly at risk."

Pastore said his opponent's position on abortion is "extreme," noting that Kelly would ban abortion at about six weeks and makes no exceptions for rape and incest in his heartbeat bill.

"On the one hand, they talk about letting the states decide," Pastore said at a recent campaign event, "but on the other hand, they're actually moving in the U.S. Congress to take that right away from the state. And that would dramatically roll back women's rights here in Pennsylvania"

Dan Pastore, left, speaks with Erie resident Roberta McCall, 68, during a campaign meet and greet at Cellar 54.
Dan Pastore, left, speaks with Erie resident Roberta McCall, 68, during a campaign meet and greet at Cellar 54.

Student loan forgiveness and the cost of college

Pastore said Biden's decision to forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt for millions of borrowers was "unfortunate" but a "reasonable compromise to address the situation we have today."

"Congress has failed to act to address the rising cost of higher education for many, many years," he said. "The cost of education outpaced inflation significantly.

"It shouldn't have come to this," he said. "I talk to people throughout the district. Some of them, they've been paying 10 years on their student loans and the amount they owe is the same or higher than where they started. There's something wrong with the system."

Pastore backs a few different ideas to address the cost of college, including increasing the amount that's available from Pell Grants, which has bipartisan support.

"And then we need to index that amount to inflation so it doesn't become a political issue," he said. "We should look at either reducing or eliminating the interest rate on student loans. And we should allow student borrowers to refinance their loans, which for some reason they can't do now."

Election results, fixes

Pastore chides Kelly for his election lawsuit, vote on Jan. 6 and his continued insistence that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from Donald Trump despite no evidence of voter fraud.

Pastore said the courts are the right path to take if someone believed there was "unfairness" in an election. He questions why Kelly didn't file a lawsuit over Pennsylvania's mail-in voting law, Act 77 after it was passed in late 2019 and instead waited until after the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election when the results weren't in the GOP's favor.

"When the court system makes a final determination under our Constitution, that is the final word," he said. "And if you respect the Constitution, you have to respect the finality of the decision made by our judiciary, that independent branch of our government that decides these type of disputes. The lawsuits were brought, they were resolved. The determination was that those claims of unfairness had no merit.

Pastore is a proponent of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which, according to the text of the bill, "establishes new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices may take effect."

Pastore also supports the Electoral Count Act, which clarifies ambiguous and outdated language in the 1887 law that governs the Electoral College. The Electoral Count Act clarifies that the role of the vice president is ministerial, among other things.

"We need to remove that uncertainty," Pastore said.

Only nine Republicans supported the bill when it came up for a vote in the House. Kelly wasn't one of them.

Ban on stock trading, Kelly's ethics investigation

Pastore said he wants to restore trust in elected office — trust that he says Kelly has squandered during his tenure. Not only does Pastore point to Kelly's actions around the 2020 election, he also cites a House Ethics Commission investigation into Kelly.

The investigation, which is still ongoing, attempts to determine if Kelly supplied his wife insider information when she purchased stock in an Ohio steel company with a plant in the Kelly's hometown of Butler as Kelly was advocating for an investigation into steel imports. Kelly has denied wrongdoing.

Pastore, though, said it's especially telling that Kelly won't support a bill called the Ban Congressional Stock Trading Act, which would ban members of Congress and their spouses from trading individual stock. Kelly said the bill lacks support from both Republicans and Democrats.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Pastore said it's an important measure that would prevent members of Congress from using the sensitive information they obtain in their official capacity for personal financial gain.

"People tell me they can't even listen to politicians anymore because they're so disillusioned with what they hear," Pastore said recently. "They tell me the system's broken. I agree. I believe in our country and that we can do better. But we can't expect a different outcome if we don't do something different."

Candidate bio

Matthew Rink can be reached at mrink@timesnews.com and on Twitter at @ETNRink.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Democrat Dan Pastore looks to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly in Congress