In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 2: Rowing and Shooting

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Bryan Lentz, a Democrat from Pennsylvania running for Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, hands out campaign info at a bus stop. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Marcus Hook, Pa.

Traveling Companions: none

Events: Train station handshaking in Morton, Pa.; factory visit in Marcus Hook, Pa.

An abbreviated day, as I’ve had to double back to New York for a friend’s birthday party. But this morning I did several events with Bryan Lentz, the Democrat running against Pat Meehan (see yesterday’s post) for Joe Sestak’s old Congressional seat. The most interesting stop was at Nielsen Kellerman, a small company making electronic equipment in the suburbs south of Philadelphia.

We were met at the door by the company’s young CEO Alix James, who explained that the company had been started 32 years ago by two partners–including her step-father–who were dedicated rowers and who had invented an electronic system for cockswains to keep time and broadcast instructions to their crews. It was called…the Coxbox, and it has gone through 4 iterations since, and is now exported to crews all over the world.

Another piece of equipment cockswains find useful is a small, handheld weather meter, also invented by this company, called the Kestrel, which has become Nielsen Kellerman’s most popular product. “Our biggest customer right now is the military,” James explained. “Snipers use them to make atmospheric calculations for long-distance shots.”

A factory worker in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

It was soon apparent that this plant visit was something of a mixed-blessing for Lentz, who is a former paratrooper and prosecutor–so he had a certain appreciation for the sniper’s craft. It was obviously a well-run little company: 70-employees, most with only a high school education, divided into production teams along Japanese manufacturing principles–constantly keeping track of their productivity, helping each other solve problems, cross-trained to perform various skills. The work floor was a clean, well-lighted place. But not a union shop, which can be hazardous duty for a Democrat. Most of the workers made $10.50 an hour, which seemed a bit low to me, but they also received full health benefits. Lentz was clearly impressed by the efficiency and cleverness of the operation, but a bit reserved about praising it overmuch. (I asked the CEO if having a union would be a problem. “The work rules would kill me,” she said. “There would be all these problems with having workers cross-trained to perform various operations. The union would insist on classifying them, which would limit our flexibility.” I must admit I’m not sure that this is true and would welcome comments from union organizers with a different point of view.)

Like many small businesspeople, James was worried about Obamacare. It wouldn’t kick in till 2014, so it was hard to tell how the combination of tax credits and puchasing exchanges would affect her bottom line. “It’s the uncertainty,” she said, using a word that has become anthemic among small business owners. “The current environment is very negative for small businesses. Our health care premiums were raised 15% this year. I know other owners whose costs were increased 28-30%.” (Lentz told her that one provision of the Obama health bill, already in effect, was the right to challenge confiscatory premium increases.)

Lentz gave a brief speech to the workers–nothing memorable there; he’s a solid, but not particularly fluid speaker–and then fielded questions. The workers were stone silent. The plant manager had several questions about taxes: he wanted them lowered. Lentz, who is a member of the state legislature, didn’t commit to that–and was forthright in favor of resuming the Clinton tax rates on those earning more than $250,000. “80% of those people are millionaires,” he said, a statistic I’ve heard several Democrats use this year. (Fact check request here–I’m on the road and will depend on you, dear readers, to interact in situations like this, as well as magisterial trip wrangler, Katy Steinmetz.), then he backtracked a bit in response to the plant manager’s frown: “I know some families with dual incomes may reach above $250,000 and I’d be open to seeing if we could raise that number a bit, or phase the tax in.”

Lentz then talked about the problem of the state’s rising property taxes and said something unusual for a Democrat. He acknowledged that the cost of state employees was growing beyond control–earlier he’d told me that a previous Republican Governor and state legislature had increased employee pensions by 50%. “We’re at a point in history where we’re going to have to cut government expenditures. This is a crisis. The train has rushed down the track and is about to slam into us.”

The CEO asked Lentz, with a certain edge to her voice, if he thought “the government can make jobs.”

“Well, in a time like this, government can’t be a bystander either.” He said and said he favored the tax credits for small businesses proposed by President Obama–which Republicans reflexively and rather hilariously opposed today–and an additional tax credit for research and development.

The CEO nodded in agreement. Afterwards, I suggested a new summer olympic sport utilizing her two products–rowing and shooting, sort of like the winter olympics’ cross-country skiing and shooting. She liked the idea, but not nearly as much as the r&d tax credit.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.