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Ron Klink: The Congressman from Murrysville

Sunday, March 26, 2000

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In 1995, 4-year-old Shawn Brake of Plum was diagnosed with cancer and needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

  Ron Klink

His insurance company contended the transplant was an experimental procedure and refused to pay for it. Shawn's mother, Dot Brake, desperately sought help and turned to Rep. Ron Klink, D-Murrysville. He was able to prove the procedure was no longer experimental. Shawn received the treatment he needed and today is a healthy 9-year-old.

This episode is highlighted in a Klink campaign ad as he battles for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. According to colleagues, it's an example of the way Klink has worked during eight years in the U.S. House.

As the congressman representing Pennsylvania's 4th District, they say, Klink has mainly focused on issues that affect his working-class district. He has fought to reduce steel imports. He successfully lobbied the Clinton administration to ease proposed anti-pollution rules that he said would cost jobs in the western part of the state.

Some of Klink's work, such as pushing for a patients' "bill of rights," has attracted national attention. But Klink generally has concentrated on issues of primary importance to his district, seeking to reflect the economically liberal, socially conservative positions of his constituents.

Ron Klink

Born: Sept. 23, 1951, Canton, Ohio.

Home: Murrysville.

Education: Meyersdale High School, Somerset County; broadcast training.

Experience: Businessman. Restaurant owner. Reporter and anchor at KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh, 1978-92. Member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993.

Family: Klink and his wife, Linda, have two children.


"He's been very much of a traditional Pennsylvanian politician," said Michael Young, director of the Center for Survey Research at Pennsylvania State University. "He plays a lot of attention to his district and his constituents. Even though he has a media background and lots of skills in the electronic media, he's still very much in the traditional mold."

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, a friend of Klink's who is co-chair of his Senate campaign, calls Klink "a real Western Pennsylvania kind of guy."

Doyle, who often drives back and forth between Pittsburgh and Washington with Klink, said, "Ron's background is just like many of the working families in his district, and he's not afraid to battle the big guys to help the little person."

But now that he's running for the U.S. Senate, Klink has to translate his House experience to a statewide audience. In particular, opinion is mixed on whether Klink's stand on two controversial issues -- guns and abortion -- will help or hurt him as he tries to win the Democratic nomination to take on incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in the general election.

As does a large percentage of his constituents, Klink opposes abortion and most new gun control measures. His top two primary opponents, state Sen. Allyson Schwartz and former Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Tom Foley, favor abortion rights and gun control laws.

"To win the primary in Pennsylvania, a Democrat needs to go to the left" contends William Green, a Pittsburgh Republican consultant. "Klink's pro-life and anti-gun control stance plays very well in Western Pennsylvania. But I don't know how well it plays across the state for Democrats."

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel argues that Klink's position on those issues will enable the party to win back many conservative Democrats who have recently voted for Republicans.

Singel, who declined to run in the primary and instead backed Klink, noted that he disagrees with Klink's position on guns and abortion.

"The question is who has the best chance to win in the fall," Singel added. "If we tack to the left in the primary, it makes it that much harder to sail into the wind in the fall. Ron's in the middle -- there's no need to tack one way or the other."

Klink, 48, grew up in the rural town of Summit Mills in Somerset County. He and his wife, Linda, have been married for 22 years and have two children, Matthew, 14, and Juliana, 12.

Prior to his election to the House, Klink worked as a farmhand, roofer, retail salesperson and restaurant owner. In 1978, he went to work as a reporter for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh and later became an anchor.

In 1992, Klink decided he wanted to be on the inside, making policy, instead of on the outside, reporting about it. He set his sights on the U.S. House seat then held by Democratic Rep. Joe Kolter.

Despite his lack of previous political experience, Klink's television work made him highly recognizable for 4th District voters. Klink beat Kolter and two other Democrats to win the primary and then bounded to victory in the general election with 78 percent of the vote.

Klink has received a steady 64 percent of the vote in each of the past three elections.

Although Klink has no college degree, friends say he is a quick study and natural politician. They point to Klink's ability to persuade fellow Democrats to give him a coveted spot on the powerful House Commerce Committee in his second House term.

"It's very hard to be effective [as a lawmaker] until you've been here for a while, although, of course, you have to try," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, dean of Pennsylvania's House Democrats and co-chair of Klink's Senate campaign. "For [Klink] to get on the Commerce Committee when he did -- that was a real coup."

On the Commerce Committee, Klink now serves as the top Democrat on the oversight and investigations subcommittee. In that position, he has combined his reportorial skills with his legislative position to explore a number of issues, including tougher federal regulation of "date rape" drugs and an investigation into the risks and benefits of online pharmacies.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, said he and Klink have worked well together, despite party differences.

"No one would call Ron Klink a slouch," Upton said. "He is on the edge of his seat, he is filled with energy. From the witnesses' perspective, you'd better hope that he's on your side."

As a House member, Klink also has played a key role in issues affecting unions. For example, he was a leader in last year's fight to convince the Clinton administration to take action against foreign companies dumping steel in the United States. Although the administration didn't go as far as Klink and others had wanted, the issue became a national rallying point for unions and won Klink important political support.

Klink himself argues that his House experience is one of the main reasons Democrats should nominate him to try to topple Santorum.

"The U.S. Senate is not any place for on the job training. I'm someone who can hit the ground running," Klink said.

Although his friends, like Doyle and Murtha, say Klink is a "warm person" with a good sense of humor, he publicly projects the image of an intensely serious man.

"Ron Klink is the only politician who never smiles," said Green. "I don't know how you get in this business and not smile. I think it's because he never had the preparation work [such as getting elected first to local office] that it takes to be a congressman."

Doyle agrees that "Ron is an intense person. Ron's got compassion, but he's got a toughness, too. He's a great friend to have, but you don't want to have him as a foe."

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