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Amid Rumors of Rep. Shuster's Exit, Businessman Tom Smith Weighs Challenge

By Tuesday, 05 May 2015 06:40 AM Current | Bio | Archive

As unkind publicity continues to dog House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., 2012 Republican U.S. Senate nominee Tom Smith told Newsmax last week he was seriously looking at a challenge to the eight-term lawmaker in 2016.

In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, Smith — a multimillionaire businessman who drew 45 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in 2012 — said "a lot of people have urged me to do it. Political activists on the outside and some [Republican] party people have called me about it."

Coupled with this talk of a spirited primary challenge have been reports that Shuster — 54 and divorced — is romantically involved with an airlines lobbyist who will have major legislation before his committee. The rumor has sparked some speculation the congressman may not run again.

But Shuster’s campaign team moved quickly to dash such speculation.

Sean Joyce, Shuster’s campaign manager, told Newsmax: "Congressman Shuster is continuing to focus on doing his job the people of the 9th District sent him to Washington for. As chairman of the Transportation Committee and a staunch conservative, Shuster is committed to fighting the misguided spending policies of President [Barack] Obama along with his fellow Republicans.

"Politics will come later, but Congressman Shuster looks forward to working with the Republican president who defeats Hillary Clinton next year."

But it is Shuster on spending that Smith insists has led him to consider making a challenge. What particularly upsets him, Smith said, "is the way [Shuster] told me this national debt — which is now up to $12.8 trillion — is the biggest national security problem we have.

"Fine. I agree with that completely. But I haven’t heard his plan for solving it. And he not only votes to lift the debt ceiling without any concessions on spending or dealing with entitlements. To make things worse, he’s got a long history of supporting pork barrel spending by the federal government."

From 1973-2001, the 9th District seat was safely in the hands of Shuster’s father and fellow Republican, Bud Shuster. The elder Shuster was also chairman of the Transportation Committee and a supporter of federal dollars for highway expansion and other public works programs.

Shortly after winning re-election in 2000, Bud Shuster abruptly resigned his seat and a special committee of local Republican leaders selected Bill Shuster to run in the resulting special election.

In 2014, two underfunded and little-known opponents drew a combined 47.2 percent of the vote against the veteran congressman in the Republican primary. Realtor Art Halvorson, the runner-up (34 percent), has said he won't run in 2016 and urged Smith to run for the seat.

In recent weeks, several news reports have carried Shuster’s acknowledgment of a "close private and personal relationship" with Shelley Rubino, vice president for global government relations with Airlines for America. This acknowledgment comes as the Pennsylvanian’s committee is poised to deal with the most comprehensive overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration in decades, including possible privatization of air traffic control.

Rubino, once a staffer for the House Democratic leadership, "does not lobby my office, including myself and my staff," according to a statement from Shuster. However, she is not banned from lobbying any of the other 50 members of the committee he chairs or their staffs.

Smith did not discuss any of the latest stories about his possible opponent and insisted his possible candidacy is motivated by what he considers the congressman being "asleep on the job" when it comes to the nation’s debt.

A onetime forklift operator who went on to own and run one of Pennsylvania’s largest coal mining operations, Smith freely admits that he switched from Democrat to Republican "about six months before I got in the Senate race [in 2012]. But you have to remember I was not an active Democrat and backed Republicans for office for years before I actually became one."

He proudly recalled how he was a major donor to conservative Pat Toomey’s near-successful primary challenge to the late liberal Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in 2004. (Specter eked out renomination, was re-elected, switched to the Democrats in 2009 and lost the primary to liberal Rep. Joe Sestak the following year. In November, Toomey defeated Sestak and made it to the Senate.)

Smith also acknowledged that his home is in the neighboring Erie County-based district of Republican Rep. Mike Kelly and not in Shuster’s. Although a U.S. House member does not have to live in the district he or she represents, Smith told us that "I have two homes and two businesses in the 9th District. And I did pretty well there in the [Senate] primary in '12."

As to whether Smith will take on Shuster, he told us "I’m going to wait until after the county and municipal primaries take place this year. They’re important, and I don’t want to draw attention from them. But then I’m going to take a poll and be listening to a lot of people."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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As unkind publicity continues to dog House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, former Republican U.S. Senate nominee Tom Smith has told Newsmax he is seriously looking at a challenge to the eight-term lawmaker in 2016.
Bill Shuster, tom smith, house, gop, john gizzi
Tuesday, 05 May 2015 06:40 AM
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