ALLENTOWN - Just about everywhere Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta goes these days, someone urges him to run for higher office: County commissioner. Congress. President.
While flattered, Barletta said his only interest for now is winning reelection this year. The Republican mayor is seeking a third term, defying expectations that he would try to parlay his newfound fame as a crusader against illegal immigration into a higher post.
Republican activists say Barletta, 51, has a bright future in politics - if he wants it.
"Politically, he's done himself a world of good," GOP media consultant John Brabender said. "The real question is, where does he go from here, and what is the right office?"
Barletta rose to national prominence with his Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a first-of-its-kind crackdown that he proposed for his northeastern Pennsylvania city of 30,000 after four illegal immigrants were charged with killing a man. The measure, on hold due to a legal challenge, was approved last summer and emulated by towns and cities around the nation. It would penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that hire them.
Anti-illegal-immigration activists hailed Barletta's approach, and he quickly became a fixture on cable TV and talk radio, advocating his view that illegal immigrants are wrecking the country and that local governments can't wait for federal action to do something about it.
Despite his heightened profile, Barletta said he was too busy defending the ordinance in court to run for higher office. Hispanic landlords and business owners have sued to overturn the law, and a federal judge is set to rule on its constitutionality.
"I want to see it through, and not leave the people of Hazleton just because I may be able to get elected to a higher office," Barletta said.
That hasn't dampened speculation about his intentions.
When Barletta spoke at the National Press Club in Washington recently, he wound up meeting with officials from the National Republican Congressional Committee, stirring talk that he was planning a run for the U.S. House. The mayor said he was not.
Despite his popularity, Barletta would face a difficult battle. The 12-term incumbent, Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski, has more than $1 million in the bank, and the district is heavily Democratic.