The 171st Pennsylvania House District includes parts of Centre and Mifflin Counties.
Kerry Benninghoff is the Republican candidate running for this seat against Democrat Peter Buck in the general election this year. Benninghoff has held the seat for 23 years and is currently the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader. He was the Centre County Coroner before becoming a state representative and previously worked at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
WPSU’s Min Xian talked with Kerry Benninghoff.
Min Xian: Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, thanks for joining us.
Kerry Benninghoff: My pleasure. Thank you.
Min Xian: You're running for your 13th term representing the 171st District. What do you believe are the most important challenges facing the district?
Kerry Benninghoff: As a state, we are all struggling as much of the nation is, regarding employment issues, getting people back to work, and hopefully getting some businesses back up and going, because frankly, the revenue helps to fund many of the things we utilize in our community, whether it's our local schools, some of our medical facilities, emergency services. And so one of the challenges is obviously trying to get the state to rebound from challenges in the last six or seven months.
Sadly, we still have a significant opioid addiction problem here in Pennsylvania, which needs -- continues to need to be addressed. So it's really about focusing on the quality of life for our constituents. And that's been something I've been focused on for a while.
Min Xian: Since you were elected as the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader in June, you have been fighting back against Democratic Governor Tom Wolf's handling of COVID-19. What would you do differently?
Kerry Benninghoff: Well, the goal is not necessarily that I'm fighting back, we're trying to strike a balance. Very early on, when I was Majority Whip and not Majority Leader, we as a caucus were trying to get the administration to work with us, keep us in the loop. And so we passed first proposal was to have this task force which would have been representation from the House, the Senate. Unfortunately, that was not supported by the governor's office as many other bills that we passed and sent to his desk. At the end of the day, this is something we need to all be working together on and truly working together doesn't mean that somebody makes a decision, holds a press conference and tells you two hours ahead of time. I respect that the Governor has a job to do and also respect that there's a separation between the executive offices and the legislature. But [at] this time of a pandemic, we need to really have true communications in the planning process, prior to this stuff being rolled out and decisions are being made.
You know, we have different levels of government for a reason. One of the things that I have supported that maybe the governor's office has not is local control, especially when it came to our education system. We elect local school boards because we believe that the local people know best what's for their community. And we think those decisions should be made by the local school board administrators and the people that those students, parents elect to govern them, and not just a blanket order all the time, down from the top. And so open dialogue would have been far more helpful and a true proactive dialogue with the legislature before unilateral decisions were made that affected very remote areas in the Commonwealth with very little COVID problems as much as they affected hotspot.
Min Xian: The integrity and security of this year's election is a crucial issue nationwide and in Pennsylvania. What are you doing as a legislator to ensure voting is secure?
Kerry Benninghoff: As you may or may not know, it was the Republican majority that provided an opportunity through the mail in ballot system to let people have another opportunity on how to vote, which happened to be very timely with the COVID situation. Through the primary, we saw there were some problems when some counties chose to take it upon themselves and do more than what the state statute allows, as far as providing drop boxes, which were not necessarily monitored. So people need to decide how important is it that the integrity of your vote, every single person's vote be protected?
Some of the things that we've asked in a recent bill that we passed through the House -- it’s over in the Senate right now -- you could walk in and vote like we have for 100 plus years. Or if you didn't feel comfortable, you could fill out your paper ballot, put a stamp on it, mail it back in or we made two other provisions that you could actually fill it out, take it into the Board of Elections prior to elections and or on election day, you could actually fill it out, get to the precinct that you normally would vote at and hand it to them -- the Judge of Election at that booth and it would be accounted for.
So we've actually provided multiple ways to try to vote in a secure manner. As you know, the courts made some rulings and there's a lot of concern when we are going to allow part of our population to possibly continue to vote after eight o'clock by filling out paper ballots that will have no postmark on them. And that ballot could be filled out Wednesday after the election, Thursday after the election and sent off to the county and will be counted in the election, which really disenfranchises those individuals who chose to vote in person or on time by mail-in ballots, by allowing some portion of our public to vote for several days after the election. To me, that's not a partisan issue. That ought to be something that people all want to make sure doesn't happen. We should all want safe, secure election process so that your vote isn't canceled out by somebody who came by 24 hours, 48 hours later and tried to change the outcome.
Min Xian: There have been protests for racial justice and against police brutality nationwide this summer. Are there changes you would make as a state representative to address these issues? And if so, what are they?
Kerry Benninghoff: Actually, the legislature and myself we take this all very serious. The General Assembly did pass five different pieces of legislation as a response to this. One of them is trying to address PTSD needs and evaluations, we know that some of our officers have come out of military situations, some of which had some challenges there. It's a very horrible experiences. And we want to make sure the resources are there for our police. You know, we put another bill through that prohibits people from just moving a problem officer along by just quietly discharging them, but not telling the next potential employer that there was an issue. At the end of the day, people make mistakes. We want those corrected, we want to, you know, be in a preventive mode. And that's what a lot of legislation had to do -- is to prevent any of these things from happening from the get go. And I think we need to make those resources available to our police personnel as well.
Min Xian: Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, thank you very much for talking with me.
Kerry Benninghoff: My pleasure. You have a good afternoon.
Min Xian: Kerry Benninghoff is the Republican incumbent running for the 171st State House District. We talked with his opponent, Peter Buck, yesterday. You can find that interview and more information about this year’s general election on WPSU.org/vote. I’m Min Xian, WPSU.