Yet for all intents and purposes, that’s what will happen on Nov. 4 in Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District, when Keystone State voters decide whether to elect Hazleton’s Republican Mayor Lou Barletta over 12-term Democratic incumbent Paul Kanjorski.
A congressional race usually involves far more than one issue, but if any election amounts to a referendum on a single subject, this one does.
Barletta is the immensely popular mayor who fought a massive influx of illegal immigrants in his town by pushing through an ordinance to suspend the business licenses of companies that knowingly hire them or landlords who knowingly rent to them.
“The drain on a small-town budget that illegal immigrants have caused has been destroying our quality of life,” Barletta told me in an interview last week. He said unreimbursable health care expenses and educational costs — along with a huge spike in street crime — accompanied the wave of illegals who flooded Hazleton this decade.
“The people who are hurt the most by the illegal immigrants,” he added, “are the legal immigrants who compete with them for jobs. We’re not giving them a fair shake [by not enforcing the laws].”
But several landlords and Hispanic groups, along with four “John Doe” illegal immigrants, sued to block the ordinance. They were backed by a witches’ brew of interest groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
In federal district court, Judge James Munley, a Clinton appointee, ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor on almost every procedural motion, including the ones allowing the John Does to remain anonymous. Then, using logic that was tendentious at best, he ruled Barletta’s ordinance unconstitutional.
The city appealed, and Barletta will leave the campaign trail just five days before the election to attend the Oct. 30 trial before the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Suffice it to say that some legal heavyweights have come down on Barletta’s side.
The case should be of particular interest to officials of Herndon, Va., and surrounding communities, whose efforts to close a day labor center that catered to illegal immigrants drew scorn from elite opinion makers but proved quite popular among voters.
Whatever the legal outcome of the Hazleton case, Barletta’s stand has made him a folk hero.
Despite the 11th District’s 60-40 Democratic registration edge, Barletta has steadily increased his lead in the polls, with a recent survey putting him nine points ahead even in this decidedly non-Republican year.
Then again, Barletta already had quite the common touch.
Hazleton is even more overwhelmingly Democratic than the 11th Congressional District, yet Barletta was elected mayor by about a two-to-one margin in 1999, re-elected by a 4-1 margin in 2003, and then won about 90 percent of the vote last year against a political independent.
And this was after Barletta not only won the Republican nomination, but also won the Democratic nomination in a write-in effort over a former mayor of the town.
Incumbent Kanjorski, meanwhile, has been under an ethics cloud for a number of imbroglios, including a $10 million earmark for a company that employed his daughter and three nephews. Then the company went bankrupt.
Barletta’s own story is compelling. He dropped out of college to try out unsuccessfully for a Cincinnati Reds farm team — “I couldn’t hit a curve ball,” he said — and eventually he and his wife started a street-line painting business with a kit they bought for $29.95.
That was in 1984. The business eventually employed 60 workers, and he was able to sell it two decades later for a cool $3 million.
On issues other than immigration, Barletta is a mainstream conservative — “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-drilling,” he said — who said he would push to keep taxes low and to make congressional earmarking fully transparent.
But to most Pennsylvanians, he is primarily the mayor who stood strong against illegal immigrants.
And by the time his town wins his court case, he may well be sitting in Congress, writing national policy on the issue.
Quin Hillyer is associate editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner.