Fight for Altoona: Bitter battle rages in GOP House primary
Bitter campaign winds down in Blair County
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Images of fecal matter and drug addicts have broadsided voters in Altoona, as they watch two Republican candidates duke it out for the Republican nomination in the 79th House district.
And the battle ends Tuesday with the primary.
Longtime incumbent state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, is seeking his 18th term, as he tries to ward off a heated challenge from John McGinnis, a professor of finance at Penn State-Altoona and a former talk radio host.
McGinnis, a Republican with libertarian views, said he opposes the federal war on drugs, would decline a state pension if elected and supports a repeal of prevailing wage laws that unions favor.
The 79th District includes the city of Altoona and parts of surrounding Blair County. With Altoona teetering on the edge of financially distressed status — at which point the state would step in to oversee the city's operations — the race has an added level of tension.
McGinnis, a relative newcomer to politics, has been criticizing Geist’s support for pension increases, spending hikes and ties to politically powerful unions.
“He has been there too long, and he needs to be retired,” McGinnis said of Geist. “There is too much career politics in Harrisburg, and it is hurting the state.”
Geist, one of several prominent Republicans statewide facing primary challenges this cycle, said he is running on his record.
“I just keep doing the job and every two years I go before the board of directors — the voters. They keep sending me back,” he said.
Both sides have taken their share of shots below the belt.
One political ad against Geist superimposed the incumbent’s head on a pile of feces beneath the behind of a squatting mutt, while another labeled him as a liberal and had him posed next to former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
McGinnis said his campaign did not pay for either ad, particularly the controversial dog one.
He said they had focused on Geist’s record, which includes voting for the infamous 2005 legislative pay raise and a series of pension increases for lawmakers and public employees in the early 2000s.
Geist has responded by seizing on McGinnis’ opposition to the war on drugs by distributing campaign mailers with pictures of drug addicts and implying that his opponent would allow illegal drugs, like cocaine, to be sold on the street.
“Despicable tactics, no honor whatsoever,” said McGinnis. “I think it’s a sign that he thinks he is losing the race.”
Geist said the negative campaign has been driven by McGinnis, who had help from outside funding via conservative political action groups in Harrisburg.
“The negative message is only going to carry you so far; eventually, you have to talk about what you’re going to do,” Geist said.
The Blair County Republican Committee, following its longstanding tradition, did not endorse either candidate.
With five days remaining in the campaign, committee chairman A.C. Stickel said the race has been one of the dirtiest he can remember.
“It’s easy, when you’ve been there for more than 30 years, to become a little complacent,” he said of Geist. “The point of view of a number of people is that it might be time for him to retire.”
But the longtime incumbent is clearly not going down without a fight.
One of the central issues of McGinnis’ campaign — his promise not to take a state pension — is a sham because he is entitled to a state pension as an employee of Penn State, Geist said.
McGinnis said he does not have a problem with state employees taking pensions, but believes elected lawmakers should not because it creates a political conflict of interest.
This story was updated to clarify that McGinnis is not a member of the Libertarian Party.