Back Channels: Everyone would benefit if Sen. Casey would debate Tom Smith

An unlikely confluence of events made Mr. Smith a senator in Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When Sen. Sam Foley dies in office, the state's governor names a replacement based on a coin flip and his children's recommendation: Jefferson Smith, their Boy Ranger troop leader.

Tom Smith sees economic issues in Western Pennsylvania that resonate elsewhere. He is running for a Senate seat against Democrat Bob Casey, who hails from the Scranton area.

The 1939 film is classic good vs. evil. Forced to stand athwart it all yelling "Stop!" was the good and decent Smith, played by the good and decent Jimmy Stewart.

One man, the film affirms, can make a difference.

So hopes another good and decent Smith this year, Tom Smith of Western Pennsylvania - Jimmy Stewart country. Unlike the movie Smith, Tom has to fight for the job. He beat a crowded GOP field in the April primary, without the endorsement of the state party or Gov. Corbett.

And that was the easy part.

Now it's Smith vs. incumbent Bob Casey, he of the famous name that voters have been supporting on statewide ballots since 1966 (first father, then son). Casey won his seat in a landslide over Rick Santorum in 2006. Going by some polls, Landslide 2.0 is not out of the question.

So what prompts a successful 64-year-old businessman who should be enjoying his retirement to take on one of Pennsylvania's most formidable politicians?

"The three major issues that people want to talk about right now are what got me into this," Smith says, "That's the economy being stagnated, the lack of jobs, and deficit spending and the national debt."

Smith and his wife, Saundy, have seven children (four of whom are siblings the Smiths adopted from Texas), and eight grandchildren, with No. 9 on the way. With the youngest of the children either finishing college or looking for work, the economy is much on Smith's mind.

"When your parents turn over the country to you, so to speak, that's a responsibility," Smith says. "My father, he passed away when I was 20, so that's when he turned it over to me. In my mind, it was in a lot better shape then than it is today. He didn't give it to me $16 trillion in debt. . . . When I was a young man you could get jobs in Western Pennsylvania and most parts of the state. Today you can't."

He hears those concerns echoed in countless meetings across the state, as workers and business owners share their frustrations about the economy, and about Washington adding to those burdens.

"Businesses are scared to expand right now," Smith says. "It's understandable. I lived that."

After 20 years running mining operations, Smith knows that businesses need consistency to expand and flourish: in energy prices, regulations, and tax policy. It just isn't there today.

"A reasonably priced source of energy is the cornerstone to a strong economy," says Smith, who backs an "all of the above" approach, "and we have the reserves in this country, and this state, too, to be energy self-sufficient.

"A big key to that is fossil fuels, but our president, he's declared war on fossil fuels, and we can't do that. . . . We have to have them for jobs, and that's what most voters in Pennsylvania feel, too, that we need these jobs."

Regulations, too, are a stumbling block to job creation, he says.

"I've talked to doctors groups, I've talked to manufacturers, builders, farmers, bankers," he says. "It doesn't matter to whom I speak, they're all getting regulated to death."

Instead of reasonable regulations, Smith says, the Obama administration has "gone to excess, and they are just strangling business. . . . We have to spend so much time just asking, 'Are we in compliance?' instead of producing and expanding."

There is a financial cost as well. Last week, the American Action Forum reported that regulations imposed during Obama's term are estimated to cost business $488 billion.

An overly complex tax code also hurts, Smith says.

"It's just so full of loopholes for special interests," he says. "That's not right, and that's why I'm in favor of a flat tax."

He's not sure what rate would be best, but he is sure he doesn't want it based on the current level of spending. Cut first, decide what's needed (at no more than 20 percent of gross domestic product), and then set a tax rate based on real expenses.

Smith is also for replacing Obamacare with business- and consumer-friendly reforms, getting the government out of picking winners and losers in industry, term limits, and other things worth debating. Unfortunately, no debates have been scheduled.

That's too bad. Voters should hear what Smith and Casey have to say on balanced budgets, the deficit and debt, saving entitlements. And, of course, creating jobs.

"That's foreign to them," Smith says of Obama and Casey. "They don't know how to grow and produce jobs. They've never been in that area."

It's a debate worth having. Thirty-second TV spots just aren't enough to help voters decide if Mr. Smith should go to Washington.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or