Infrastructure, Jobs are Key to Coming Together Under Biden, Say Pennsylvania Republicans, Unions

Nov. 16, 2020

Nov. 14—After more than a decade of division — Republicans trying to block Barack Obama at every move and Democrats questioning Donald Trump's legitimacy — President-elect Joe Biden is inheriting a contentious crowd.

His best strategy to bring them around a table together, a diverse group of Pennsylvanians say, would be to push a massive national infrastructure program out the door during his first year in the White House — recasting his campaign slogan "Build Back Better" as "Build Back Together."

Former Gov. Tom Corbett, an Allegheny County Republican, brought Democrats as well as business and labor to the table in Pennsylvania in craft a $2.5 billion transportation program. He said it's the kind of template Biden might want to consider.

Rebuilding aging locks and dams up and down our rivers, extending broadband internet service to isolated pockets of the region and nation, rehabbing highways and bridges in serious need of repair and focusing on transportation systems from airports and railways would provide jobs, boost the economy and position the country to be more competitive in a global marketplace, he said.

"Infrastructure isn't partisan," Corbett said. "It's good for everyone."

In agreement is his predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Philadelphia Democrat.

"Everyone in America believes we need to pave roads and bridges, built out the internet, build out the grid, 5G, build water and sewer systems and ports," Rendell said. "You'd get strong supports and create 4 or 5 million jobs."

Westmoreland County Commissioner Doug Chew, a Republican who holds a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, said he'd like to see the new administration make investment in science and research a priority — especially research aimed at heading off any future pandemics.

But infrastructure is an issue that should attract everyone to the table, Chew said.

"That is probably the one big area that people could tackle first, and both sides of aisle would be very happy for that," Chew said. "I don't think anybody in Southwestern Pennsylvania feels our infrastructure is new and good and that it doesn't need fixes or improvement."

Local and state governments struggling with pandemic costs lack the resources to go it alone on such projects, so Biden could likely count on buy in from those sectors. American industry would get a boost from demand for products like steel, while workers could point to paychecks.

Even so, it's never easy to get such projects off the drawing board.

Corbett's Pennsylvania project brought business and government together through a series of private-public partnerships that put bridge construction in the hands of companies that agreed to maintain them in the future.

But even then it was hard to line up support for the tax overhaul necessary to underwrite the projects.

"That's the boogeyman," Corbett said. "You've got to be able to prove we're losing money by not funding it."

When President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, proposed an interstate highway system, Congress balked. It wasn't until Eisenhower snared the support of a pair of Southern Democrats — Sen. Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee and Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana — that Congress in 1956 approved the 41,000-mile highway system that bears Eisenhower's name.

The massive undertaking that linked America and improved the nation's transportation also provided hundreds of thousands of jobs over more than a decade.

Unions on board

Labor leaders across Pennsylvania say an infrastructure initiative that guarantees jobs is likely to have the added benefit of salving some of the sting among Trump supporters who still account for nearly half of the nation and a big chunk of voters in the Keystone State.

"The president liked to say, 'Look at the stock market.' But the stock market didn't reflect unemployment we're going through, the lack of hours, the lack of investment," said Jim Kunz of Pittsburgh, who serves as international vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union representing heavy equipment operators.

Kunz said he hopes Biden's efforts to bring the pandemic under control bear fruit.

"Then for us, it's jobs, jobs, jobs. ... What we're looking at first is infrastructure — roads, bridges, broadband, the energy grid, sewer and water," Kunz said. "Throughout history whenever the economy has been teetering, going back to the Great Depression, it was investment in infrastructure that brought us back. ... The challenge is going to be at the end of the day, once President Biden is sworn in, will the Republican Senate work with him?"

Labor leaders realize many of their rank-and-file members supported Trump even though the unions endorsed Biden, said Bill Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.

"An infrastructure project now, along with whatever they're going to concur on with the pandemic, is going to be one of the main keys to bringing people together and some of the hardcore Trump supporters around," Sproule said.

Shawn Steffee, of Homer City, was among those supporters.

The business agent for Boilermakers Local 154 served as the gruff voice behind a series of television ads warning that a Biden presidency could tank the region's energy industry — a sector that provides his members good jobs.

"I accept the decision our country and the voters made," Steffee said. "I will ... show (Biden) due respect, and I hope he hold true to what he said that he wants to move forward with us on energy. We want to see our energy industry move forward with a good environmental plan."

As for an infrastructure program that would provide even more jobs, Steffee said he could get on board with that. He's seen the problems a lagging economy and an opioid epidemic have exacted on the region.

"I am not an economist or a political scientist, but I know jobs cure a lot," he said. "If people are employed and have a good, family sustaining job, a lot of other problems go away."

Christine Toretti, of Indiana, is Pennsylvania's Republican National Committeewoman.

She ran one of the nation's largest privately held oil-and-gas drilling companies for decades and sat on the board of EQT. Steffee's comments resounded with her and, she hopes, with the president elect.

Somehow, Toretti said, any plan to build back America must include Pennsylvania's energy industry with an eye toward a sustainable, environmentally sound energy policy.

She is encouraged by developments in solar energy, but said Pennsylvania's burgeoning energy industry must be included if plans to build back better together are to succeed.

"I understand the anti-fossil fuel and global warming concerns," she said. "But if we don't have a sane process to move from fossil fuels to renewals in a way that makes sense for our country, we're just going to slide back.

"There needs to be a sane process to transition over a period of years, and I think that is something everyone can come together around."

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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