GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Democrats looking to reconnect with rural voters could stop at Denny Wolff’s dairy farm to raid his closet, borrow his pickup, and brush up on jargon in the milking barn.
That’s a grain moisture tester, not a thermos, Wolff would tell them. Fixing a TMR mixer will get you elbow-deep in grease, he’d say. Birthing a calf won’t get you elbow-deep in anything, if all goes well.
But for a candidate, faking any ounce of the farming life or donning some rugged costume bought on a quick run to Bass Pro Shops can be perilous. John Kerry got goosed when he went hunting. Michael Dukakis rode in a tank.
“People here can pick out a phony a mile away,” Wolff, 66, said at his Pen-Col Farms in Columbia County.
Wolff, who was agriculture secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell from 2003 to 2009, is hoping voters in the 11th Congressional District will send a real farmer to Washington next year. He’s one of two Democrats seeking the seat, as its current Republican occupant, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, switches his sights to the Senate and Democratic incumbent Bob Casey.
“When I look at Washington, I don’t see many people who’ve lived the kind of life I have,” Wolff said.
In a recent study, four members of the Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives identified as farmers, ranchers, or cattle farm owners. Sen. John Tester, a Democrat from Montana, was an organic farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinder accident. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, made her agricultural background a centerpiece of her 2014 campaign. “I grew up castrating hogs,” she said, “… so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
Wolff, a father of five whose farming roots go back five generations, pronounces Washington as “Waarshington.” A mounted buck hangs on his office wall, and he’s dressed in just about the same clothes he wears in pictures on his campaign web site: flannel shirt, jeans, camouflage ball cap.
“Send a farmer to change Washington” is his slogan.
Wolff’s lone competitor, so far, for the June Democratic primary is Robert “Alan” Howe, a retired Air Force veteran
from Carlisle. Howe, who grew up in rural Chenango County, N.Y., said he’s no novice when it comes to agriculture and the outdoors. He moved to Carlisle just to be closer to Letort Spring Run, a hallowed trout stream that confounds fly fisherman.
Any Democrat in the 11th has to contend with a district cited as one of the more gerrymandered in the nation. It stretches 150 miles, nearly to New York and Maryland, leaving Harrisburg and its 20,000-plus registered Democrats carved out.
The boundaries, Wolff said, “defy common sense.”
The district of 707,150 is predominantly white, with 11.5 percent of its population living below the poverty level. It lost Scranton and Wilkes-Barre to redistricting in 2012.
Last year, the 11th voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and Barletta breezed to his fourth term after becoming the first Republican to hold the seat in 30 years. As of this week, Republicans had a 22,493 voter advantage, though nearly 62,000 voters were unaffiliated.
Four Republicans have entered the race: Andrew Lewis, an Army combat veteran and Dauphin County business owner; State Rep. Stephen Bloom, from Cumberland County; Dan Meuser, a former state Revenue Secretary from Luzerne County; and Andrew Shecktor, a councilman in Berwick, Columbia County.
Wolff knows why his former schoolmates, neighbors, and fellow farmers came out for Trump.
“They feel like they live in the forgotten land, that no one understands what a blue-collar, working-class family has to go through in rural Pennsylvania today,” he said. “They’re good, hard-working people, and they were ready for a change. … They saw someone who had a different strategy, and they said it’s worth a try.”
If support for Trump has slipped in rural America, as some polls suggest, Wolff, a moderate, thinks he can win over Democrats who voted outside the party. His main argument, again, is that he’s one of them: “I know what they face every day.”
Rendell, the only boss Wolff ever had besides his father, said his former agriculture secretary is a perfect fit for the district — if a long shot.
“I encouraged him,” Rendell said. “If I thought he had zero chance to win, I would have said, ‘Denny, save your money.’ What he needs to do is learn how to ask for money. He’s not a glad-hander. He’s the real deal.”
As agriculture secretary, Wolff created “PA Preferred,” a branding program that told consumers about products made in the state.
While Barletta found national attention with his hard line on illegal immigration as mayor of Hazleton, Wolff said his approach is more realistic.
“There’s 11 million undocumented residents in this country,” he said. “Deporting 11 million people is not an option.”
Wolff said he believes in strong borders, but when pressed for policy specifics on immigration, he said the answer lies in a middle ground. “Amnesty is probably not the right term,” he said, “but the Democrats and Republicans need to sit down and figure out what we need to do to bring these folks into the system.”
Howe, his opponent, also says immigration can revitalize struggling towns, not ruin them. “A town like Shamokin,” he said, “could use an influx of 500 immigrants.”
Wolff is concerned about a lack of skilled workers in the 11th. He wants high school students to have opportunities to learn trades and focus on career paths.
“Everybody doesn’t want to go to college,” he said. “When I talk to local businesses, it’s one of their biggest concerns, and they feel they’ll have to hire skilled operators from outside the area to work machines.”
On the farm, where work is mostly muddy, Wolff sells cattle embryos to farms around the world, reading genome reports over the morning coffee. In the barn, a Holstein calf named Jewel nudged between the bars of her pen to get a scratch from Wolff. Jewel is nearly perfect, genetically.
“She knows she’s special,” he said.
Wolff’s children are not farmers, he said, and he’s still got some hard work left in him — whether in the barn, or in Washington.
Democrat Denny Wolff, a dairy farmer from Columbia County, gives his prize calf, Jewel, some attention.