BACK IN THE '90s, state Rep. Mike Gerber was a defensive back on Penn's Ivy League championship football team. "I wasn't a star," he modestly concedes.

Now he's got a new defensive assignment - one requiring a star.

Gerber, D-Montgomery, heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee. He's charged with finding cash and candidates to keep the state House in Democratic hands.

This at a time when defending state leadership passes as a Herculean task.

A corruption probe is burning through both parties - lawmakers, former lawmakers and staff; 22 charged to date - with no end in sight. The Legislature's job rating is at its lowest ebb (15 percent of voters approve of the clan), lower than after the '05 pay grab.

The year is ending with the sour aftertaste of a 101-day delayed budget, still incomplete as lawmakers stumble over details to legalize table games. And 2010 is generally expected to favor Republicans.

So Gerber's defending the party that runs the House, bollixed the budget and just saw two more of its leaders - Whip Bill DeWeese and Majority Leader Todd Eachus - make news by being invited to testify before an investigating grand jury.

"It is a challenging job," says Gerber. "But I feel good about where we are in recruiting and fundraising. When you look at historical data, we're further along than in previous years."

I think the guy's stuck in single coverage.

Democrats hold the House, 104-99, so they can afford to lose only two seats and remain in power. (A caveat: A one-seat difference triggers shenanigans and party-switch potential.) In the Senate, Republicans hold a 30-20 edge and are likely to stay in the majority, barring an A-bomb from the corruption probe.

The pressure's on Gerber. At least he's got some background, and the genes.

He's 37, a Penn grad with a law degree from Villanova, elected to the House in '04 with 50.2 percent of the vote, re-elected twice since by margins topping 65 percent. His mom, Penny, is long-time Southeast Caucus chief for the Democratic State Committee. His late father, A. Richard Gerber, was active in Democratic politics and for years a member and later chairman of the Pennsylvania Securities Commission.

Rep. Gerber's job wasn't made easier when two incumbents - Philly's Kathy Manderino and Chester County's Barbara McIlvaine Smith - said they wouldn't seek re-election.

Manderino's retiring after nine terms. She says she's "ready to do something else." She also says that there's a large Democratic registration edge in her district (the 194th), and that even if national or state moods favor Republicans the seat won't change parties.

And she doubts that Democrats are in danger: "I just don't see the state House level impacted by some general mood of the electorate, because so many districts are not competitive."

That last part is true and argues, as I have, for redistricting reforms. But if the probe hits more Democrats, it could shoot holes in Manderino's theory.

McIlvaine Smith's 156th District is a different matter. Even Gerber concedes that "that will be a competitive seat." And McIlvaine Smith candidly says she's leaving after less than two terms because the Legislature's a mess.

She blames a "fraternal culture" that "loves to play games" and avoid reforms. She says, "I came to the Legislature thinking it was honorable public service, and I find it's not . . . I owned a [water-conditioning] business for 28 years, and so I think like a taxpayer . . . I'm appalled at the money spent on getting re-elected."

So we enter an election cycle with an atmosphere potentially poison for both parties (House Republicans don't even have a campaign chairman yet) at a time when Democrats have lots to defend. I hope Gerber saved his pads.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.
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