The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Q&A with state senate candidates Lisa Boscola, John Merhottein

Republican John Merhottein (bottom) is mounting a challenge to six-term incumbent, Democrat Lisa Boscola (top) during a tough year for Democrats. (Photos courtesy of Lisa Boscola and John Merhottein)

Pennsylvania’s 18th state senatorial district has not been competitive for a long time; Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from Bethlehem, is running for her seventh term, and she has gone unchallenged for several of them. This year, with the national political mood turning against Democrats and the district’s proportion of Republican voters rising, Boscola has a formidable challenger in John Merhottein, a Marine veteran and the lone Republican serving on the Bethlehem Township Board of Commissioners. The Lafayette sat down with both to gain their perspectives on today’s most pressing issues, the state of politics and their legislative priorities. 

Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

There is ample coverage of the economy, abortion and other buzzword issues. What is one issue you are personally passionate about that you wish more people paid attention to?

Lisa Boscola (D): I really think the redistricting process goes under the radar. The Lehigh Valley is a swing area, but there are very few out there. When you redistribute districts into 80 percent Republican districts and 80 percent Democratic districts, candidates can win a primary and that’s all they have to worry about. They never have to worry about a general and what that does is behold them to the party apparatus.
John Merhottein (R): I’m concerned about the senior citizens and the working-class families. Now with the cost of inflation, utility bills, grocery bills, gas bills, it’s hard. I meet with individuals and they all tell me it’s hard. I met a senior early on in the campaign that told me he was worried about heating his house this winter. That could have been my father. It could have been my grandfather. And that is a huge burden that was placed on me, to try and help these seniors and the working class. We need to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It had a chance to be vetoed by one vote.

How can the General Assembly support college students?

LB: One of the big things has been trying to cover PHEAA. We need to fund the PHEAA (Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency) grant program which helps defray loans and allows kids to pick a school he or she wants to go. It is a need-based grant program that is capped at $5,750. We need to continue to work with Pennsylvania colleges to keep the costs down. Grants will help reduce the need for bigger loans and we must work with banks to protect against exorbitant interest rates.

JM: Make sure we have a good economy so they have jobs when they graduate. Lessen the burden – lessen the regulations – on business, you know? Allow them to be able to hire.

The state minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Should the state minimum wage be raised? 

LB: The minimum wage is so low. I think $12 is a reasonable amount that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon – that’s what I hear. $7.25 is too low and it’s been that way for too long.

JM: The minimum wage is not the problem now, it’s just trying to find a workforce. I could go to FedEx right now and I believe they’re starting at $18 an hour.

Pennsylvania currently restricts abortion after the 23rd week of pregnancy. Do you support statewide restrictions on abortion beyond those currently in place?

LB: I definitely am pro-choice. I voted several times to protect the current Pennsylvania law because it provides a woman a right to abortion up to 24 weeks and, after, it has to be a medical emergency, and then requires a 24-hour counseling period which some pro-choice people don’t like. I always felt that if you’re under 18, parents should know if you’re having surgery just like any other surgery, but there is a judicial bypass for instances where you can go to a judge and say, “I just can’t tell my mom or dad.” It could be an incestuous relationship, something like that that prevents a woman from telling her parents. The Republican Party is constantly coming up to further restrict a woman’s right to choose, and I’m going to be adamantly opposed to any efforts to do that. 

JM: I’m pro-life with the exceptions of incest, rape and the life of the mother. 

Yes or no: Do you accept the results of the 2020 election?

LB: Yes.
JM: Yes.

What makes you more qualified for this seat than your opponent?

LB: I’m one of the last independent-minded legislators here in Harrisburg. I feel I’m the most qualified because a lot of people in the district want somebody that makes decisions with common sense and does not listen to the party bosses but listens to what the people back home want. I know I’m the better candidate. I know the issues. I love people. And we love helping people, working with them.

JM: I’ll bring a fresh perspective. Again, Boscola has campaigned on the same issue for the last 20 years and nothing’s been accomplished.

Boscola has served the Lehigh Valley in the General Assembly for 28 years. Before she was a lawmaker, she worked both in local government and as an educator. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Boscola)

What can Harrisburg do to alleviate the financial strain on Lehigh Valley residents?

LB: We’ve been trying to do a lot. I sponsored bills for both a sales tax holiday and for a gas tax holiday

JM: My opponent has run on reducing or eliminating property taxes for the last 20 years, and obviously, it hasn’t worked. So we need some new ideas on how to lessen the burden on the seniors and the working class. Possibly looking at how the state funds the school districts, the state should attempt to get more money to these school districts with the surplus they have right now. Also, I think some of the gambling and table game taxes should be earmarked for property tax relief.

What is something from your secondary education that helped shape or will inform your legislative style?

LB (BA/MA in political science from Villanova University): My education helped affirm what I was taught growing up. My dad was a Marine and steelworker and instilled a strong work ethic. It was really competitive to get into Villanova and excel there, but by working hard I was able to graduate and get my master’s degree. My father and mother were very clear about requiring good grades and working hard and it pays off.  

JM (certificate in computer programming): What worked for me is that it was hands-on. We actually did the programming. It was very little bookwork. And I guess I’m a very hands-on learner. With the people – talking to the residents, hearing their concerns – is actually the best part of the campaign. You serve the people, you know what they need, you don’t serve any party, you have to represent the district and my opponent has done that pretty well. But she really just hurt the district with her Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Editor’s note: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is currently being challenged in Pennsylvania courts and the state is not a current signatory to the program.

Pennsylvania has at least a $5 billion budget surplus in addition to billions in leftover COVID-19 Relief funds. What should be done with the Commonwealth’s excess funds?

LB: Property tax relief.

JM: It should go towards property tax relief.

Do you support Governor Wolf’s proposed PA Opportunity Program, which would use the Commonwealth’s excess funds to provide $2,000 checks to Pennsylvanians making less than $80,000?

LB: Yes, of course.

JM: Plans like Wolf’s are causing the inflation. I’m against it.

What is one local issue that the General Assembly can solve?

LB: One of the issues that I talked about on the senate floor constantly is property taxes and fairly funding our public schools. The fact that we’re not funding our schools at the level that they should be forces property taxes to be at higher rates in the Lehigh Valley than anywhere. In my own caucus, people ask me, “What’s your number one issue?” Property taxes! They don’t even have to ask me anymore, they know what I’m going to say.

JM: As the commissioner of the township, I understand the issues these municipalities have – the unfunded mandates, the funding of a volunteer fire department – so I would hope to bring my experience as a commissioner to Harrisburg to help them in this capacity.

What can the General Assembly do to assist Lehigh Valley’s veterans?

LB: We can always do more to help our veterans. My dad served as a Marine. There are so many issues. I have a bill in place to reduce and eliminate their property tax burden. I’m always focused on property taxes, but for them, if they’re going to lose their home, and they’re a veteran, I think that’s totally wrong. And then I think we need to make sure that they have easy access to the services they need. One area that I’ve been championing is making it easier for veterans to have a professional license. There’s one problem that I’ve seen as veterans move around, they can’t get licensed quickly enough. And we need to shore that up for them.

JM: Make sure we’re providing the best possible resources for mental health for veterans.

Merhottein serves as the president of the Bethlehem Township Board of Commissioners. He served in the Persian Gulf War and, thereafter, worked as a computer programmer. (Photo courtesy of John Merhottein)

What is the bill you’re working on currently that you’re most excited about? What would be the first bill you would like to bring to committee in the senate?

LB: It’s the same thing as the property tax issue. I will not give up on it. And the fair funding formula for our public schools because we are being underfunded in the Lehigh Valley and I gotta get that to where we’re fully funded to where we should be. The problem is they have this whole harmless piece of legislation that says, “Even if a school district loses students you still have to fund them the same.” In the Lehigh Valley, we’re gaining population, our schools are growing and we never get our fair share. So I have to constantly make sure we do but I also need to do whatever I can to find a different way of paying for our school system because the heavy reliance on local school property taxes is antiquated. It’s not fair, and we’ve got to find a better way.

JM: It would be again, to try to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Residents are telling me their utility bills are doubling.

Why do you think this race is so competitive?

LB: I’ve always run in a swing district. The Lehigh Valley has competitive races. Ours is composed of 19 to 20 percent independent voters and our district is very independent-minded.

JM: I think because of the redistricting of the district and also the political environment. We’re very polarized right now as a country, and sadly, it’s Republican versus Democrat and not always about the candidates.

How will you get things done in the Senate should your opponent’s party control the chamber or the governor’s office come January?

LB: I’ve already done it. In fact, I got four bills in four years, which is unheard of as a Democrat in the Senate. And that’s because I work with both sides. I have been a maverick. And that doesn’t come easy, believe me. I mean,  most elected officials, or most senators and representatives, when they come here, will just vote Democrat or Republican, they follow the leadership and that’s it. They don’t think for themselves. I look at every bill, I don’t care if it’s Democrat or Republican, I will vote for it if it makes sense or not vote for it if it doesn’t. So I have a tremendous record with the Republican-controlled Senate in the last four years.

JM: I am the only Republican on the Bethlehem Township Board of Commissioners. The board elected me to be president because of my common sense and my ability to work with others, so I definitely need to reach across the aisle to get some stuff done. 

What is the endorsement you’re most proud of?

LB: I think that it’s the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania. They really went out of their way for me. And that they came out to publicly endorse me like this and say she does what she feels is right. Same with the Restaurant Association because I helped them during the pandemic.

JM: It’s tough to get an endorsement when you’re not the incumbent.

What is one problem you have with your party and your opponent’s party?

LB: So both extremes are bad. I’m more of a centrist. I get disappointed maybe with the Democratic Party cancel culture, kind of woke-ish, things going on. For more of a preachy type of approach. I get a little unnerved by disrespect for the other party even though they were elected. There’s times when they won’t shake the hand of the opposite side. They wouldn’t even stay in the room to listen to their own colleagues when they’re trying to say something. That frustrates me in my party, my caucus. The Republicans to me, they’re very extreme. And this whole thing about the 2020 election is ridiculous. It was contested, it was audited time and time again. The fact that they’re putting that lie out there is just insulting to me.

JM: It’s probably the extreme side of both parties, right? Fifteen or 20 percent of the country may be far left, 15 or 20 percent of the country may be far right. But that still leaves about 60 percent of us in the middle.

Should your opponent emerge victorious, what is next for you?

LB: Well, I love people. So if I wasn’t doing this job, I would think like public relations for a university or a hospital network, or school district, something like that. When you believe in something, you can go out and advocate for it and be a good public spokesperson. That’s what I would do.

JM: I’ll continue to work. I currently work full-time, campaign at night. So I’ll get my nights and weekends back, and my family. I told somebody the other day that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They said, “You were in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, right?” And I said, “Yeah, that was easier.”

Is there anything you would like to add?

LB: No, I think you’ve covered it all.

JM: Lisa Boscola has been around for 28 years in the assembly. She’s got name recognition and she’s had quite a few years where nobody ran against her. So it’s a tough race. And that’s why I’m working hard trying to get my name out to let people know that there is a choice.

Correction 10/28/2022: A previous version of this article stated that Pennsylvania had up to $15 billion in excess revenue, excluding COVID-19 relief funds. The Commonwealth actually has up to $15 billion in excess revenue when taking into account relief funds, though most estimates pin the budget surplus around $5 billion. This article has been updated to reflect that fact.

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About the Contributor
Trebor Maitin, Managing Editor
Pennsylvania enthusiast.

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