Can Rob Bresnahan Rebuild Northeastern PA – and Congress?

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At 19, Rob Bresnahan was a student at the University of Scranton. He was also the CFO of his grandparents’ construction company. At the time, Kuharchik Construction, based in Exeter, was millions of dollars in debt. Now the CEO, Bresnahan, 33, has dug the company out of its hole and has tripled the number of employees (all unionized) by making strategic acquisitions and expanding into new service lines, from bridge de-icing to EZ-Pass detection. With the backing of a private equity firm, Bresnahan recently merged forces with an Illinois-based company.

Born and raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania (he’s never left), Bresnahan builds and develops. Having built out his grandparents’ business, he recently also began redeveloping properties in his native Pittston. And now he’s running for Congress, next year, in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District. Given its recent troubles – a fight over the next Speaker of the House fit for reality TV, along with ongoing struggles to fund the government and support key U.S. allies – Congress is reminiscent of some of the Pittston buildings that Bresnahan bought and eventually refurbished: it’s dilapidated and dysfunctional.  

Beginning today, Bresnahan will be making his pitch to the constituents of the 8th district. Tucked in the northeast corner of the Commonwealth, the district includes the Poconos and the cities of the anthracite coal region, spanning from Scranton through Wilkes-Barre and the Wyoming Valley and into Greater Hazleton (all of it now a center for warehousing and logistics). Democrat Matt Cartwright has held the congressional seat since 2013, consistently warding off Republican challengers. But Cartwright’s margin of victory narrows by the year: he bested John Chin by 23,000 votes in 2018, Jim Bognet by 12,000 votes in 2020, and then Bognet again by only 7,000 votes in 2022.

Even as the district inches closer to the Republican column, unseating the incumbent won’t be easy: Cartwright is a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the dean of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Delegation. House Democrats’ campaign apparatus has listed Cartwright as one of its most vulnerable members up for reelection in 2024. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will be paying extra attention to – and spending extra money on – Cartwright’s reelection bid.

So, what’s Bresnahan’s pitch to voters? How does he plan to crack the code?

It centers on infrastructure – on laying a solid foundation for Northeastern Pennsylvania to prosper now and in the years ahead. Bresnahan views his upcoming 2024 campaign as “an opportunity to give back to Northeastern Pennsylvania in a way” that he “never thought possible,” and he plans on doing so by pitching voters on rebuilding the district’s roads, bridges, broadband communications, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure, and the like. “If we want to foster economic growth in Northeastern Pennsylvania, we need to have the fundamental infrastructure systems in place to support that growth.” That will require spending money, though Bresnahan is an avowed fiscal conservative. He intends to square the circle just as he did as CEO: by cutting waste and locating opportunities for enhanced efficiency.

Bresnahan is not scared of the future. He speaks of the inevitability of electric cars, for example, but he stresses that we can’t “put the cart before the horse.” It would be wrongheaded to force a shift to electric vehicles now without first having the infrastructure in place – e.g., ensuring that the power grid can bear the increased load. And in building out the district’s infrastructure, Bresnahan hopes to support the same sorts of well-paying, stable jobs he created as head of the family business. He prides himself on the company’s “exceptionally low turnover,” and he is focused on crafting policies that lead to more skilled trades. According to Bresnahan, filling this “huge need for skilled trades” will open doors to sustainable careers for Northeastern Pennsylvanians, not merely jobs. Given the blue-collar skills gap in urban areas like Philadelphia, there might be some room for bipartisanship on this front should Bresnahan find himself in Congress.

It’s clear that Bresnahan’s focus on infrastructure – “the backbone of our country” – ties in with his expansion of his family’s construction company. His community involvement and nonprofit service inform his other areas of policy focus. A longtime mentor as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program, Bresnahan emphasizes the need for policymakers to think creatively about how to extend economic opportunity and mentorship opportunities to younger generations: “There’s a direct tangible correlation to the well-being of that child when they have that mentor.”

Of course, even if he beats Cartwright, it will be hard for Bresnahan to notch policy wins in a dysfunctional Congress. Bresnahan understands this. As Rep. Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the House Speakership and chaos ensued, Bresnahan said: “What we saw unfold . . . in the House of Representatives made it clear that it is time for a change. We have families who are forced to decide between groceries and child care, seniors struggling to pay medical bills let alone utilities, housing that is totally unaffordable, and crumbling infrastructure. Northeastern Pennsylvania can’t afford non-stop fighting in Washington.”

Other younger members of Congress who are similarly oriented toward real-world problem solving have also publicly vented about Congress’s institutional dysfunction. For example, Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin took to the pages of The Atlantic in 2018 to criticize congressional norms and rules that hamper the body’s ability to function. 

Too many members of Congress are more akin to entertainers than legislators, but Bresnahan clearly intends to be more of a problem-solver than an attention-getter: “We have to pass legislation. We have to take care of the American people.” As an “ideas-based person, a solutions-based person,” Bresnahan will have to work with colleagues to shepherd his proposals through the procedural morass.

It won’t be easy, but if his business track record is any indication, Bresnahan is set to run a serious campaign. Bresnahan will build it; the question is whether the voters will come.

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