Messenger of Fiscal Discipline Finds New Audience - AP
By MARC LEVY, Associated Press Writer | (AP)
Published: September 24, 2010
MILL HALL, Pa. (AP) Kevin Johnson was introducing Pat Toomey to the 30-some people gathered in the wood-paneled restaurant and describing his principles "lower taxes, personal freedom" when his voice tailed off.
"Fiscal discipline," Toomey, the hard-charging Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, prompted.
"What's that?" Johnson kidded.
"They don't know in Washington either," Toomey riffed.
Six years after he nearly knocked off Arlen Specter in the 2004 Senate GOP primary, Toomey is reintroducing himself to Pennsylvania and recession-wracked voters at a time when one of his signature issues is recapturing popular attention.
His opponent, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, and other Democrats have criticized Toomey's economic views as inhumane, adhering to a strict philosophy that concentrates wealth among the wealthy and lacks compassion for those in need.
But Toomey is a remarkable candidate for the times, his message resonating amid a climate that has seen the public more alarmed over ballooning federal debt, long-term joblessness and gargantuan new laws that are hard to understand. While some Tea Party candidates are untested or controversial, Toomey, a former U.S. House member, is a refined messenger who believes the little guy better prospers when taxes are lower and government rules are less burdensome.
"I've been focused on this for a long time. When I was in Congress, six years ago, I was railing about too much spending then," Toomey said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "Not a lot of people thought it was a big deal. I did. Now it's much worse. I think we've got to focus on two big things: Getting our spending under control ... and growing jobs in the private sector."
Toomey opposes the major elements of President Barack Obama's agenda, including the $800 billion economic stimulus, the sweeping new federal health care law, and an overhaul of financial-sector regulations designed to head off large, institutional failures, as well as the bailouts that began under President George W. Bush in 2008. All were supported by Sestak.
Toomey, 48, is a Harvard-educated former investment banker and restaurant owner who excelled early. As a youngster in Rhode Island, he mowed lawns up and down the block and learned to beat his much-taller brother in basketball.
During a decade in Washington, D.C., he emerged as a leading voice for free-market enterprise and business owners yearning for less government in their lives.
Six of those years he spent in Congress representing the Lehigh Valley, compiling a voting record equivalent to Pennsylvania's most conservative congressman now, Joseph Pitts, and more conservative than former Sen. Rick Santorum, according to American Conservative Union ratings.
He's a polished public speaker, whose even-keeled demeanor belies an ability to deliver one-liners. His younger brother Steve said Pat gives a rib-busting delivery of the time his youth basketball coach told him: "Pat, you know, you're short. But you're slow, too."
Toomey, who lives in Zionsville, near Allentown, crafted his political views in the early 1980s at Harvard University, where he was surprised by his fellow students' disdain for President Ronald Reagan.
"He was optimistic, he was a believer that America's best days were ahead," Toomey said. Reagan, he continued, "really understood that free enterprise is the source of jobs and a higher standard of living and wealth creation and military strength."
Reagan's ideas made sense to Toomey intuitively and even more so as he continued to learn at Harvard and later in the markets of high finance, he said.
Toomey grew up in East Providence, the third of six children born close together. His father, Patrick, a lifelong Democrat who never voted for a Republican, worked on an underground line crew for Narragansett Electric. His mother, Mary Ann, was a parish secretary at St. Martha's Catholic church.
Steve recalled how their father, a former Marine, had strict rules for TV watching: News and nothing else. The family ate dinner together and then watched the local and national news, exposure that fueled the boys' interest in the world and what was happening to it, he said.
Toomey attended the private LaSalle Academy prep school on scholarship before he went to Harvard. He worked for six years at investment banks in New York City, where he found ways to make money by selling interest-rate and currency derivatives used by large businesses to stabilize their costs.
While living in the city, he would take the bus to Teterboro airport, where he learned to pilot small planes.
Next, he spent a year in Hong Kong, compiling a study on Asia's financial markets for two wealthy Chinese brothers, Gerald and Ronnie Chan, who wanted to get into banking. When he returned, he moved to Allentown, where he'd helped his brothers start a restaurant and nightclub venture.
The brothers had picked Allentown because the demographics lots of over 30s were similar to cities in Massachusetts where Steve had helped run successful nightclubs.
One manager recalled Toomey being popular with the staff and fluent in the restaurant business.
"We would spend quite a bit of time reviewing each line on the profit-loss statement, reviewing what needed to be done to improve things," said Bill Smedile, who later purchased the brothers' Rookies restaurant in Allentown.
Toomey quickly became interested in local politics as Republicans gained control of Congress. He looked for an opportunity and found one, when the Democrat representing the area retired.
In 1998, Toomey won the U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania's 15th District, and kept his pledge to leave after three two-year terms.
While in Congress, he supported the Iraq war and President George W. Bush's tax cuts, while advocating for Bush's plan to allow Americans to divert some of their Social Security payroll into privately managed investment accounts. That idea that failed after Democrats opposed it as a step toward privatizing the nation's retirement security.
However, he voted against one of President George W. Bush's signature accomplishments, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, because it added to the size of government. He eventually swore off "earmarks" grants for local projects inserted by members of Congress into spending bills that he says are used by party leaders to buy votes on key legislation.
As a congressman, Toomey came across as a no-nonsense person who didn't waste time worrying about what people think of him, said one prominent Pennsylvania Democrat.
"Pat has never been the backslapping, slobbering all-over-you politician," said T.J. Rooney, the former state Democratic Party chairman whose state House district overlapped with Toomey's U.S. House district. "Even his approach to serving ... tended to be different in that it was more businesslike, more transactional than it was emotional."
A former CEO and chairman of Bethlehem Steel Corp. said he found Toomey to be accessible, responsive and caring. The two didn't always agree, but Toomey listened carefully and was decisive.
"Those were qualities of leadership," said Curtis "Hank" Barnette.
At the time, Bethlehem Steel was going bankrupt and Bethlehem was trying to absorb the blow. The mayor, Don Cunningham, asked Toomey to secure federal money to help revive the downtown Broad Street shopping district.
"He said, 'Look, that runs counter to what I believe in,'" recalled Cunningham, a Democrat who now is the elected Lehigh County chief executive. "'This would be a spending project and we'd have to bring money back from the federal government to open this up and I don't do that.' ... I remember saying to him, 'You're one of 435 people who represent communities and the other 434 believe in helping a city getting some assistance.'"
In the end, it was Specter who delivered $1.5 million in federal aid to build a public parking garage.
Toomey left Congress in 2005, but not before he gave the then-Republican Specter a scare, losing the GOP nomination by less than 2 percent of the vote. He continued to work in Washington as president of the Club for Growth, a politically active nonprofit that supports candidates who run on a strict platform of lower taxes and less government regulation. That focus occasionally put it, and Toomey, at odds with Republican Party-endorsed candidates.
At one point, in 2007, Toomey told a CNBC interviewer that all corporate taxes should be repealed a statement seized on by Democrats as evidence of Toomey's favoritism of corporate America. But Toomey has acknowledged that it is unrealistic, and defended the need to maintain Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, albeit with changes to control costs.
"They're not sustainable," he said.
In spring 2009, amid a GOP backlash over Specter's vote for Obama's stimulus bill, Toomey announced he would challenge Specter again. The five-term incumbent promptly packed his bags for the Democratic Party, concluding he wouldn't be able to fend off Toomey a second time.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suddenly had to find a new candidate and found that Toomey had already aligned the state's Republican leaders behind him.
Toomey similarly impressed the heavily Republican crowd during the question-and-answer session at the restaurant in Clinton County. Afterward, Toomey shook some hands, listened politely to people who wanted to bend his ear and posed for a photo before leaving for a nearby airport where his Piper airplane was parked.
"I just liked what he was saying about a lot of different things," said Carol Terry, 70, a registered Republican who owns a gift shop and interior design store in nearby Lock Haven. "I didn't feel he was just saying it to make us feel better. ... He really means what he's saying and he believes it in his heart."