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NEWSMAKER / Jeff Coleman

Savvy upstart in state House making his mark at 25, but he's hardly a political novice

Monday, February 19, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jeff Coleman was born with political fever -- fire in the belly.

By the time he was 13, Coleman was so impassioned about politics that his school began excusing him from classes so he could campaign with the pros.

"We gave him special field-trip privileges to work with the Republican Party," said the Rev. Steven Cooper, administrator of Orchard Hills Christian Academy in Apollo, Armstrong County. "It was educational. He was learning about the election process, and it wasn't long until the Republican Party wanted him around."

Coleman craved voter rallies the way most teen-agers did Snickers bars. Everybody who knew him knew he was a natural campaigner.

In 1993, when he was just 18, Coleman won a seat on the Armstrong County Republican Committee as a write-in candidate. Then he was elected to the council of his hometown, Apollo Borough.

 
 
State Rep. Jeff Coleman
Date of birth: July 4, 1975

Place of birth: Whidby Island Naval Facility in Washington state

In the news: Coleman, R-Armstrong County, last week introduced a bill to create anti-abortion license plates. Each specially designed plate would sell for $35, of which $15 would go to nonprofit adoption agencies in Pennsylvania.

Quote: "The goal of this license plate is to highlight the need to make adoption the first choice of moms in crisis."

Education: Graduated in 1994 from Orchard Hills Christian Academy in Apollo, Armstrong County; attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and is one credit short of receiving a bachelor's degree in business and government.

Family: Engaged to a former Liberty classmate, Rebecca Collins of Orlando, Fla.

   
 

Now, at 25, Coleman is Pennsylvania's youngest state representative. He defeated 11-year incumbent Democrat Timothy Pesci of Freeport in one of the biggest upsets of the November election.

Coleman, who represents parts of Armstrong and Indiana counties, got his first taste of statewide attention last week with a bill for anti-abortion license plates.

House Bill 559 proposes that motorists be able to buy a special plate bearing the message "A Friend for Life in Pennsylvania." The plate would be blue with gold lettering, and would feature infant feet tucked between the numbers and letters.

Some 50 co-sponsors, Republicans and Democrats, have agreed to help push Coleman's bill. He prefers to call it a campaign for adoption rather than a stand against abortion rights. If Coleman's bill wins approval, a portion of money from the license plate sales would go to nonprofit adoption agencies.

Coleman says he's optimistic that his bill will carry. Then again, he is never downbeat about any of his political pursuits.

Few people except Coleman himself believed that he could knock off Pesci in House District 60, a seat that was tailored for a Democrat. Voter registrations in both Armstrong and Indiana counties tilt against Republicans.

But Coleman went door-to-door for 18 months, raised $25,000 for advertising and capitalized on a good Republican turnout. He sent Pesci packing -- 11,574 votes to 10,810 -- and ended any chance that Democrats could take control of the Pennsylvania House.

Going into the election, Democrats and Republicans each held 100 seats. The other three House seats were open, having been vacated by legislators caught in crime or scandal. Both parties targeted races where they thought they could tip the balance.

But the Democrats didn't pick up the gains they expected. Worse for them, they didn't bother paying much attention to Coleman until he was making his victory speech. When he captured what had been considered a safe Democratic seat, he helped seal control of the House for the Republicans.

Coleman's allies said his win was no fluke. They believe he wanted the job more than Pesci did and that he hustled harder.

Though new to the state capitol, Coleman already sees a lack of energy and idealism in government.

"I think there are a lot of folks in Harrisburg who have really lost their way," he said. "They've lost their focus on the folks back home."

Despite his youth, Coleman has seen much of the world and plenty of political styles.

His father, Keith, was a U.S. sailor, and his mother, Milan, a Filipino citizen. They married in the Philippines. The family became missionaries after Jeff was born.

When Jeff was 6, they embarked on a seven-year mission tour that took them to Korea, Kenya, Singapore, Peru, Brazil and back to the Philippines.

There, in the frenzy of Manila's People Power Revolution for democracy, young Jeff was transfixed by politics.

By the time the family settled in Armstrong County in 1988, Coleman knew where his life was headed. Though he found American campaigns bland compared to the fire of the Philippines, he became a gung-ho volunteer in Armstrong County races.

By then a teen-ager, he joined the campaign of a Republican who would lose to Pesci. Undeterred, Coleman threw all his energy behind Republicans in some 20 other campaigns. He passed out their fliers, ran their errands and sang their praises.

Sometimes, he admits now, he ended up disappointed. By viewing politicians at close range, he learned that many weren't the statesmen he had expected. Some only ran for an office because it was a stepping stone to something bigger.

After Coleman graduated from Orchard Hills Christian Academy in 1994, he enrolled at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

He studied government and business for four years, but he remains one requirement shy of receiving his bachelor's degree, the Liberty registrar said last week.

A House Republican Internet site containing the biographies of members wrongly listed Coleman as having a degree from Liberty University, as of 2000.

Asked about the discrepancy, Coleman said he knew nothing about the state Web site and had never represented himself as a college graduate.

"I apologize if there's any confusion," he said. "We've tried to be very up-front and not claim anything that wasn't."

After being interviewed for this story, Coleman had the claim that he holds a Liberty degree removed from the state site.

Even so, he maintained that his college degree could come through as soon as today. Coleman said he was lacking only the evangelical service work that Liberty requires of its students.

He said he had arranged instead to submit a paper to fulfill that one-credit obligation, and his degree would be awarded upon its receipt.

At Liberty, Coleman excelled in his studies and at everything else he tried.

"He was a very bright student -- likable, personable and deeply interested in politics," said Kevin Clauson, an associate professor of government.

To help pay his way through school, Coleman worked for a time as a news reader at WLNI radio. The station owner, Gary Burns, said Coleman had star potential.

"He's a kid with more natural ability than anyone I've ever seen, and I've been in radio for 30 years," Burns said.

Coleman read scripts like an old pro and he covered a handful of stories for Burns.

But it was clear to everyone that he preferred making news to talking about it.

Today, he promises not to become one of those political mercenaries he disliked -- the ones always looking for the next higher office.

"I don't have a game plan for the next job. This is the best job I've ever had," Coleman said.

He said the work allows him to mix business with pleasure.

"I enjoy the campaign as much as I do the legislative process. I guess that's fortunate because I'll have to do it again in two years."



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