08/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mayor Who Cried 'Whoa'

With voters still angry at the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, Democrats are poised to pick up a dozen or more House seats this November. But in Northeast Pennsylvania, Republicans may have a chance to oust a senior Democrat. In the state's 11th district, Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor of Hazleton, is challenging 12-term incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Barletta's and the Republicans' chances rest on a single issue that has faded from the presidential election, but continues to flare up in towns and suburbs around the country: illegal immigration.

Under normal circumstances, Kanjorski should not have had to worry about this race. Though his House career has not been particularly distinguished, he has won re-election easily in a district that includes the blue-collar Democratic cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. The first time Kanjorski faced Barletta, in 2002, he defeated the mayor by 13 points, and in 2006 he won re-election by 45 points. But in the last two years, Barletta has won a reputation as a crusader against illegal immigration. And as that issue has spread through the congressional district, the Republican has begun to pick up support. One poll, commissioned by the Barletta campaign, even shows the challenger ahead of Kanjorski by five points.

Kanjorski's troubles go back to what happened recently in Hazleton, a city of 22,000. Until 2001, Hazleton was a faded rust belt town that had been losing population since the coal industry collapsed in the 1950s. But that fall, Cargill opened a meat-packing plant west of town, bringing 700 new jobs to the area. Many of these jobs were filled by immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, some of whom came via New York City, which had experienced a recession after the 2001 terrorist attacks. "Between 2002 to 2005, there was an explosion of people," recalls Amilcar Arroyo, the editor of a local Spanish-language newspaper. "Every day you'd see U-Haul trucks coming to Hazleton."

[Additional videos and slides on the Congressional race can be found at: News21Project]

Property was cheap--as low as $30,000 for a three-bedroom house--so people bought homes and opened small businesses. "It was a blooming of the economy of Hazleton at that time," says Arroyo, 60, a Peruvian-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Hazleton for 20 years. "Downtown Hazleton was just dying, it was a ghost downtown, until they started opening grocery stores on Wyoming Avenue."

At first Barletta, who had become mayor in 2000, and other city leaders welcomed growth, hoping the influx of Hispanics would revive the city's stagnant economy. But as more Hispanics moved to Hazleton, tensions rose between the white population and the newcomers. Like citizens in other small towns that have sharp increases in Latino immigration, they saw the newcomers as a threat to their way of life. And even though as many as 90 percent of the Hispanics were legal residents or U.S. citizens, long-time Hazleton residents blamed illegal immigrants for the unwelcome changes to their community.

In 2006, Barletta proposed an "Illegal Immigration Relief Act," which would bar employers or landlords from doing business with anyone who couldn't provide documents. The ordinance was approved by the city council. The next year, Barletta was reelected with almost 90 percent of the vote, and the state G.O.P. began an effort to draft him for a run against Kanjorski.

In Hazleton, support for the mayor's bid has been overwhelming. Over coffee at the Blue Comet Diner, where people come to talk politics and grumble about the economy, Daniel Smeriglio, a local activist, explains why he counts Barletta as a personal hero. "Seeing what happened and a mayor responded, I thought that was just such a humble and patriotic move," he says.

Smeriglio, 25, was born in Queens, N.Y., but his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was a teenager, and he has lived in Hazleton for six years. When he's not taking care of his ailing mother or training with the National Guard, he works four jobs--as a police officer, security guard and limousine driver, and for the traffic control department. Before that, he was a waiter at the Blue Comet. "I worked in a lot of restaurants," Smeriglio says. "I've seen it firsthand, paying them cash, paying us checks. They're getting preferential treatment, getting these jobs from John Q. American Citizen. You're taking away jobs from people that are hard-working and need the money, and we can't survive day to day."

Other blue-collar and service workers echo Smeriglio's concerns. Carl Andrews, 52, of Plymouth (pop. 6,500), also worries about money, especially since he lost his job selling tires in June. He and a former co-worker are raising money for Barletta's campaign by selling T-shirts online, many of which feature slogans against illegal immigrants ("Calling an illegal immigrant an 'undocumented worker' is like calling a drug dealer an 'unlicensed pharmacist.'")

Kanjorski, Andrews says, promised that he would bring high-paying jobs to the area, but it hasn't happened. The rapidly expanding industrial parks attract shipping facilities, light manufacturing and calling centers, "but nobody's going to support a family on 10- or 12-dollar an hour jobs."

Andrews, who is descended from Polish coal miners, has lived in Northeast Pennsylvania his entire life. Now his children, 19 and 23, are making plans to leave. "All I know is, this area, we're getting nowhere fast." Andrews says. "Our young people are moving out. People that can't speak the language, they're moving in. And American industry being what it is, they go, hey, if I can hire three of these guys to do manual labor for the price of hiring this one guy, I'm going to hire these three guys. And until enough people get annoyed and say, 'Whoa, wait a minute,' it will keep being that way."

For voters like Smeriglio and Andrews, Barletta is the guy who said, "Whoa." Though Barletta's ordinance was overturned by a federal court, it is still the foundation of his Congressional campaign. "It wasn't just the issue," Barletta says today, "it was the fact that I had the courage to stand up and say what other politicians wouldn't say."

The headquarters of Lou Barletta for Congress occupies a ground floor storefront in Hazleton's tallest building, below a local radio station and ten stories of mostly-vacant office space. The sidewalk out front is deserted, but inside a handful of volunteers are cold-calling voters.

The mayor, who has walked the four blocks from City Hall, is subdued this afternoon, preoccupied by a sick cat, which he drove three hours this morning to the veterinary hospital at Cornell University. As he explains why he is running for Congress, he interrupts himself to take a cell phone update about the cat's condition. The 52-year-old Barletta's prominent Italian features melt as he hears that the cat is doing poorly, but he grows more animated when asked why he is running for Congress. "I've been embroiled in a battle over a national issue that wasn't done in Washington, he says. "It was Washington's failure that I believe caused the problem here. It's that failed government that I would like to go to Washington and change."

Barletta, whose family has lived in Hazleton for four generations, has been married for 30 years and raised four daughters in town. He counts himself as a devout Catholic and a devout Reagan conservative. His concern about illegal immigration is tied to an idea of small town life that dates to his childhood, when "your parents didn't have to worry about you, it was just very close neighborhoods, great tradition, hard-working people."

Part of the threat to Hazleton was budgetary, Barletta says. Hazleton's wealthier residents live outside the city limits, so there was no tax base to support an increase in police and school funding. But what set the legislation in motion were two incidents that happened a day apart: first, the murder of Derek Kichline, with which two illegal immigrants were charged. (The case was dropped after a key witness was accidentally deported.) And then, a 14-year-old illegal immigrant was arrested for firing a gun into a playground. Though crime overall had been going down since 1999, the high-profile shootings spooked Hazleton. "I remember telling my wife how I'd lost control of the city," Barletta recalls. "I had to take action, I couldn't wait any longer."

The controversy attracted the attention of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a national organization that advocates for restricted immigration. Kris Kobach, an attorney with FAIR's legal arm, flew up from Missouri to help Hazleton revise the legislation and defend it in court. As part of a nationwide public relations campaign, Barletta appeared with Lou Dobbs on CNN and christened himself a "small town defender" on the CBS Evening News.

Barletta knows that name recognition is his biggest strength, and he is counting on it against Kanjorski, especially since the Democrat has $2,174,387 cash on hand to Barletta's $321,880. Barletta acknowledges the difficult campaign ahead of him, but in a year when a first-term senator leads in the presidential race, he sees being the little guy as an asset. "Prior to doing what I did, most people would say that a mayor of a small town couldn't have an effect on the nation," Barletta says, "but I did."

Barletta may benefit from a growing scandal around Kanjorski, who has been accused of funneling federal money to a sham company run by his nephews. Kanjorski, 71, began running biographical TV ads in June, a sign that he takes Barletta's challenge seriously. Kanjorski is also playing up his own opposition to illegal immigration, going so far as to introduce a bill denying income tax rebates to illegal immigrants on the very day that Barletta announced his run.

Kanjorski is still favored to win, but the very fact that the race is competitive shows that voters have not forgotten about illegal immigration. Whoever wins in Pennsylvania's 11th district, the issue will come up again.