Voting His Conscience, Keeping His Promises

By Borys Krawczeniuk

July 28. 2013

As he ran for Congress last year, Matt Cartwright pointedly said he would represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” if elected.

Mr. Cartwright sharply contrasted himself with incumbent Rep. Tim Holden, who forged a reputation as a moderate Democrat in a 17th Congressional District drawn for a decade to favor Republican candidates. For example, Mr. Holden voted against President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law.With the district redrawn in 2011 to favor Democrats, Mr. Cartwright ran to the left, defeated Mr. Holden in the Democratic primary last year and easily won election over Republican Laureen Cummings in November as Mr. Obama cruised to a second term.

About midway through his first year, Mr. Cartwright lived up to his campaign mantra.

Through Thursday, he had voted the Democratic party line 95 percent of the time. Only seven of the 201 House Democrats who have voted in the 113th Congress voted the Democratic way more often than he did, according to The Washington Post’s online database of congressional voting.

“I told everybody when I ran that I’m a Roosevelt Democrat and I think I’ve been true to that,” Mr. Cartwright said.

One sign of the difference between him and Mr. Holden: Mr. Cartwright publicly promoted Obamacare, the derisive name Republicans apply to the president’s health care reform law, voted against its repeal and touted its benefits – lower drug costs for senior citizens, health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and others.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Cartwright said in an interview. “A lot of people run and hide from Obamacare and I’m not one of them.”

House members typically vote the party line, but Mr. Cartwright has exceeded even his Northeast Pennsylvania Republican colleagues, Reps. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, and Tom Marino, R-10, Lycoming Twp.Through Wednesday, of the 436 House members who have cast votes since the present Congress took office in January, 305, or 70 percent, voted with their party 90 percent of the time or better. Mr. Barletta and Mr. Marino, who are conservative Republicans, voted the party’s position 92 percent of the time.Compare Mr. Cartwright’s percentage to that of Mr. Holden, who voted 76 percent with Democrats during his final term.

“Cartwright is clearly far more liberal than Holden and more consistently liberal than Kanjorski,” said Thomas J. Baldino, Ph.D., a political science professor at Wilkes University. “I remember that he described himself as a true New Deal Democrat, and … I think he has acted as such. His campaign ads promised that he would be a liberal voice in Congress, and his votes thus far have been consistent with those promises.

In his last two terms before he lost to Mr. Barletta, Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, a Nanticoke Democrat, voted 96 percent and 97 percent with the Democrats, but 88 percent in the term before that.

Attorney William C. Urbanski, the chairman of the Luzerne County Republican Party, said no one should be surprised Mr. Cartwright has leaned “far left.”

“I think everyone knew his politics going in,” Mr. Urbanski said.The belief that Mr. Cartwright is too liberal is inspiring Republican opposition. Schuylkill County Corner Dr. David J. Moylan announced last week that he would run for the seat because the congressman is too liberal on abortion.

“He has a zero percent record,” according to the National Right to Life, Dr. Moylan said. “Somebody’s got to stand up for those who can’t talk for themselves, the unborn.”

National Right to Life, one of the nation’s premier anti-abortion groups, rates Mr. Cartwright a zero based on only two votes – his opposition to repealing Obamacare, which many conservatives believe supports abortion rights, and a bill that would prohibit aborting fetuses at least 20 weeks old. Mr. Cartwright said the bill allows abortions in cases of incest, but only if the victim is a minor.

“To my mind, I’m pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother. I don’t say some incest victims, I say all incest victims,” he said.On other issues, Mr. Cartwright voted against welfare cuts, spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage and opposed President Obama’s proposal to reduce future Social Security tax hikes.

The welfare cuts, totaling $20 billion, were in the House Republican farm bill, which failed because Republicans who wanted larger cuts voted it down.

“I voted against it because it contained $20 billion in cuts to the poorest people in our nation,” he said. “I will not condone balancing our budget on the backs of the poorest people. That’s just not who I am.”

Mr. Cartwright took his election campaign support for same-sex marriage further, publicly praising the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that favored same-sex marriage and backing a federal lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban.

“It’s time to stop beating up on the gays,” Mr. Cartwright said. “They didn’t choose to be that way. They’re not a threat to anybody. They’re not out recruiting.”

He also came out against Mr. Obama’s proposal to reduce future Social Security cost-of-living hikes and opposed the across-the-board cuts that resulted from sequestration, pointing out cuts were reversed for programs that had loud advocates – the Federal Aviation Administration, meat inspections and the Department of Defense.

The latter reversal actually benefited employees of the Tobyhanna Army Depot, one of Northeast Pennsylvania’s largest employer, by cutting sequester-rooted employee furlough days almost in half, he said. Unnoticed and still intact are cuts to Meals on Wheels, Head Start and other programs with far less vocal or fewer advocates, he said.

“In Wilkes-Barre, 49 kids will be out of Head Start because of the sequester,” he said.

The sequester is a good example of why he spends a lot of time making friends with House Republicans, he said.

“When you don’t make friends, when you refuse to talk to each other, things like the sequester happen,” Mr. Cartwright said.

Mr. Cartwright, a trial lawyer, said he has shown a willingness to lead by making friends and crossing party lines. He sought and succeeded in getting appointed as president of the Democratic freshman class, had Republicans at a class event that featured Microsoft founder Bill Gates and showed up on “The Colbert Report,” which periodically highlights congressional districts across the country.

“It’s part and parcel of the effort to get to know people,” he said. “There are 435 of us. When you join a body of that size, it comes how to you very fast that you can’t do anything on your own. Making as many good friends as possible as quickly as possible is an absolute priority.”

Last year, Mr. Cartwright said Tea Party Republicans in Congress were hurting the country and he would “expose them” if elected. They have frustrated him because they are unbending on budgetary and tax matters, he said, but far more willing to listen on matters that weren’t important to getting elected.

“So when I have (a bill on) accessibility to mental health services for veterans, they’re all ears and it’s quite refreshing,” he said.

He questioned the notion Congress can’t get anything done. By Friday, all but one of 14 Mr. Cartwright’s bills he had introduced had at least 22 co-sponsors, many of them Republicans. Besides his bill on veterans access to mental health care, Mr. Cartwright introduced bills to help military spouses transfer professional licenses across state lines, let members of a deployed military member’s family to take up to two weeks of leave during the deployment, regulate runoff at mining, oil and natural gas operations and require school lunch providers to teach better nutrition to students.

“I look for common sense bills that will have broad appeal and, number two, the people co-sponsoring my bills are my friends,” he said.So far, none has passed, a fate common for a freshman congressman, especially one in a House with a Republican majority, but a fact not lost on Dr. Moylan.“He’s sponsored quite a bit of legislation, but I haven’t seen any of it making the turnover into the law of the land,” he said.

Mr. Cartwright argues that he will make a difference, that his non-partisan approach will gain him influence and get things done the longer he’s in Congress, which will only benefit Northeast Pennsylvania.

“The more influence I have, the better it is for Northeastern Pennsylvania because that’s the main goal,” he said.