opinion

He's a Pa. lawmaker (and former spy?) running for U.S. Senate

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Tuesday, August 29, 2017, 2:46 PM

Republican Pennsylvania State Rep. Rick Saccone is running for U.S. Senate.

Republican State Rep. Rick Saccone has an international resumé rarely seen in Harrisburg. Partly because of that, he’s running for U.S. Senate. He announced his bid in February.

Saccone, 59, a native of McKeesport in Allegheny County, is a candidate for the GOP nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Bob Casey next year.

The Republican primary could be crowded and now includes Northeast Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, whom President Trump has encouraged to run.

Still, Saccone’s a rarity in state politics.

Elected to the House in 2010 from a heavily Democratic Western Pennsylvania district and reelected three times since, he holds multiple degrees: a bachelor’s from Weber State in Utah, where he was serving in the Air Force; a master’s in public administration from the University of Oklahoma; another master’s in national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.; and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in international affairs.

During his career, he traveled to 75 countries for work or study, served in military or civilian capacities in counterintelligence (including in Iraq during wartime), and worked for corporations in South Korea and Central America, and in North Korea for a (failed) U.S. program to build nuclear power plants in exchange for the North Korean military’s forgoing development of nuclear weapons.

Saccone has written several books, including Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea (2006), and served as a full-time professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., where he still teaches part-time.

He met and married his Korean-born wife while serving in Korea 38 years ago. They have two adult sons, both in the Air Force, one currently in Korea.

Saccone, a big supporter of Trump, is one of the legislature’s most conservative members and is controversial for pushing religious-related measures (some ended up in court), including a “Year of the Bible” resolution and a bill requiring all public school buildings to post “In God We Trust.”

Columnist John Baer interviewed Saccone early this month about his campaign and his career.

So, at some point, you were a spy, yes? You’re the spy who came into the House.

Well, I served in North Korea under a diplomatic mission.

But in South America, in South Korea, in Iraq during the war?

I was in counterintelligence, to catch spies.

Either way, why, with your background, are you in the state legislature?

Oh my gosh, I was teaching political science and I looked around the state in 2010, and we had eight years of late budgets and this 26-year incumbent (former Democratic Rep. Dave Levdansky) who was chairman of the House Finance Committee and in a gerrymandered district to keep him in office. And my wife and I prayed about it, and we ran on no new taxes, open government, budgets on time. Nobody thought I could win.

And why now run for Senate?

It’s almost the same reason. Like my predecessor in the state House, Sen. Casey has lost touch. He’s moved very far to the left. I represent the values of the people of Pennsylvania far more than he does. And I want to take my shot. I think I’ll do a much better job.

You spent 13 years in South Korea, then a year in North Korea (in the mid-’90’s). What do you make of our situation with North Korea now?

There are so many things we’re doing wrong. We need a long-term plan that fixes our cultural ignorance. When working on agreements, Americans place the highest importance on details of the agreement, based on logic and reason. We can reach agreements with those we don’t like. But Koreans view relationships as the most important part of the deal. …

We have to establish relationships with North Korea. We get all our information now from third parties. We need somebody on the ground now.

Let’s talk closer to home. No state budget. What would you do?

I’ve always advocated cutting spending. It’s too high. We shouldn’t have passed a spending bill without a revenue bill. I’d come back [to Harrisburg] and cut more spending, use some existing funds, some lapsed funds, and pass this budget.

We haven’t managed well. And the problem is special interests. When they line up, I mean even good causes like Alzheimer’s or food banks, and say they need more money, I ask where we should take it from. We don’t have more money.

Some stuff you’ve sponsored, like mandating “In God We Trust” in all public school buildings, seems to skirt the separation of church and state. Do you push your religion?

Look, our national motto is “In God We Trust.” It has a Pennsylvania historical angle. It was Pennsylvania’s 13th governor, James Pollock, while he headed the U.S. Mint, who recommended the motto to go on money, and President Lincoln signed it into law in 1864. That’s a great story every kid in Pennsylvania should know.

I’m pushing religion? No. It’s nonsense. It [“In God We Trust”] is chiseled in stone on the front steps of the state Capitol!

You were a spy, right?

I worked in counterintelligence.é

John Baer, STAFF COLUMNIST

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