There’s an old saying, “All politics is local.”
This year in Pennsylvania, though, that phrase takes on a new meaning, with 2019 being a local municipal election year.
Voters will elect county officials, municipal leaders and school board members in elections this year, so residents could be expected to be focused on local matters more than in a presidential election year.
For Bruce Lapka of Sharon, that’s street paving. Since early 2018, a paving project has disrupted traffic on East State Street, the main thoroughfare in east Sharon and west Hermitage.
In Lapka’s estimation, the work should have begun much sooner.
“They need repaved; most of them,” said Lapka, who said he is concerned about infrastructure issues on the national level, as well. “The construction should have been done a long time ago.”
Mercer County residents expressed a wide range of political concerns earlier this month. But, with summer road construction season approaching, infrastructure was near the top of many voters’ lists.
David Gloss, a Colorado native who moved to Sharon last year, didn’t take long to become concerned about issues that affect his adopted hometown.
“I tend to focus more on local issues because that’s where I can effect the most change,” he said.
Aside from road improvements, Gloss said he would like to see economic growth in the area. Even though the City of Sharon has already “come a long way” from where it was about a decade ago, Gloss said there’s still room for attracting potential businesses.
“It disturbs me to see vacancies along East State Street, in particular,” he said.
On the national level, Gloss said he is interested in a potential $2 trillion package aimed toward infrastructure that seems to have the support of both congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump.
While infrastructure negotiations hit a snag last week, Gloss said he is hopeful that a program could benefit Sharon, if it is prepared to take advantage of it.
“If that does happen, than I hope the City of Sharon would have some shovel-ready plans to help out with infrastructure,” Gloss said.
Pennsylvania is undertaking an aggressive road and bridge maintenance program, funded in part by a gasoline tax increase enacted in 2014. The latest hike raised the state’s levy to 50 cents a gallon, on top of the federal 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax.
Jim Allen of Sharon said the state should reduce the tax, which almost exclusively hits state residents. He maintains that the state should find a way to collect revenue from out-of-state drivers, especially truck drivers traveling through Pennsylvania to major Eastern U.S. cities including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has already nixed one proposal — a toll on Interstate 80 — for collecting fees from out-of-state drivers.
“Pennsylvania is a bridge to the east and west for drivers,’’ he said. “There should be a recognition that these people should pay something.’’
Janice Sumner’s local interest goes beyond roads to candidates. A Democrat, Sumner said she was eager to cast a write-in ballot for Thomas Johnston for Mercer County Sheriff in last Tuesday’s primary.
Mercer County election authorities plan to count write-in votes next week. With more than 2,300 Democratic write-in ballots cast in the sheriff election, Johnston needs 100 votes to win the party nomination and participate in the November election against Republican nominee Bruce Rosa.
“He just seemed like a good guy. My first impression was I liked him,” Sumner said. “I liked what he had to say and what he did, and he’s a Democrat.”
Sumner said she is looking for candidates who care about Sharon, and their neighborhoods.
“Some of these areas really need attended to,” Sumner said. “People are coming and throwing their trash in an empty lot, and we had one heck of a time getting that cleaned up because it draws rats. And the yards need cleaned and the grass needs cut. I know they’re doing their best. Our little city is sort of breathing here but we need some help.”
Allen said he is hopeful for economic development, including at Shenango Valley Mall, which lost two of its three anchor stores, and several smaller outlets, in early 2017.
The mall property owners, members of the McConnell family in Mercer County, won management rights for the mall in court last year and are trying to turn the shopping facility around.
When asked what could be done to bring vitality back to the Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, Allen had a couple thoughts.
While he opposes heavy-handed government intervention to prop up the mall, Allen saw tax abatement tools are a viable option, he said.
In the end though, market forces will decide the mall’s fate.
“If people don’t want to be in there then they’re not going to be in there,’’ Allen said.
Debates at the state level also are having an impact in Mercer County and the Shenango Valley.
Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis in 2016, and FarmaceuticalRX is preparing to operate a medical marijuana grow and processing facility in Farrell. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a supporter of recreational marijuana legalization, recently completed a “listening tour” to all 67 of the state’s counties.
Having served as a judge while in Colorado, Gloss said he is concerned about the prospects for marijuana legalization.
Gloss said he thinks growers will begin marketing the product for younger users if recreational marijuana is legalized.
“The message out there for kids will be, “we can smoke this now,”” and it will end up just like vaping,” Gloss said. “It started out where they said, “It’s not bad for you” and then they started putting out flavors like bubblegum that are geared toward younger people.”
Julius Bellucci of Hermitage said Pennsylvania needs to do a better job of spending taxpayer resources.
“They have enough money,’’ Bellucci said of state authorities. “But they spend it foolishly.’’
However, he gives state leaders some credit.
“Pennsylvania is handled better than states like California and New York in how they get and spend tax dollars, Bellucci said.
Even while voters address local elections this year, the national attention is beginning to focus on the 2020 presidential election.
Bob Hamelly voted for President Donald Trump in the last election, and said he supported Trump’s policies so far, including an improved economy.
But Hamelly said he thinks the investigations into allegations stemming from reports that of Russian involvement in the 2016 election have been a hindrance to further progress, and called the congressional probes an attempt by Democrats to discredit the presidency, Hamelly said.
“There’s no crime, but they keep dragging this out because they want to find something bad about the president,” Hamelly said.
Hamelly said he supports Trump’s take on foreign policy, which says will deter other countries from seeking war, in spite of conflicts with Russia, Iran and Venezuela.
“There’s not going to be any war because Trump’s being tough on them and negotiating from a position of strength,” he said.
Bellucci agreed with Hamelly that Democratic obstruction is limiting the president’s efforts.
He wants to see Democrats tackling problems, not bashing President Donald Trump.
“All they’re doing is stalling on things,’’ Bellucci, a Hermitage resident said of Democrats. “They want to give everything away for free.’’
Allen called illegal immigration one of the nation’s most serious problems. He supports construction of a border wall proposal championed by the president.
“I don’t think it’s a political issue, it’s an American issue,’’ Allen said.
“It needs to be controlled,’’ Allen said of immigration. “I’m not against immigration. I’m for legal immigration.’’
That said, he also wants to see an end to the rancor between Republicans and Democrats.
“Both parties need to get together and talk rationally about our problems,’’ he said.
Gloss acknowledged that while local elections might not capture the same attention as a presidential race, they’re still important and they require greater attention from voters because information on candidates might not be as readily available.
But he said people should get informed, regardless of their opinions, and vote.
“Sometimes people feel like they shouldn’t vote at all because they don’t know much about one of the elections like a school board for example, but you can leave certain ones blank instead of not voting entirely,” Gloss said. “People don’t realize what a precious, precious right it is to vote.”