Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who rose to national prominence - and became the focus of a federal civil-liberties lawsuit - because of his hard-line approach to illegal immigration, has announced plans to run for the U.S. House.
Barletta, 52, said yesterday that he would seek the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski, who has represented the blue-collar 11th District in northeastern Pennsylvania for 23 years.
"I've been fighting the illegal-immigration issue for two years," Barletta said in a phone interview after his announcement yesterday in his Luzerne County city. "They say the fight can't be on the local level, that it's in Washington, so that's where I plan to go."
Kanjorski, 70, has not officially announced his candidacy, but made it clear that he would run again in an e-mail statement after Barletta's announcement.
"I look forward to a full and vigorous debate on the issues that matter most to the people of the 11th Congressional District, such as strengthening our economy, reforming health care, ending the war in Iraq, and preserving Social Security and Medicare," he wrote. "But right now I am focused on doing the job I was elected to do in Congress."
Barletta, a Hazleton native, was in his second term as mayor when he challenged Kanjorski in 2002 and lost by 13 percentage points.
In 2006, at Barletta's urging, the Hazleton City Council adopted tough measures aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants, whom Barletta blamed for rising crime, crowded schools, and overburdened social services. The Hazleton Illegal Immigration Relief Act penalized businesses that hired illegal immigrants and landlords who rented to them.
The action, which drew praise from anti-immigration quarters and criticism from Latino and civil-liberties groups, thrust Barletta into the national spotlight.
A group of Latinos sued Hazleton last year, and a federal judge struck down the ordinance, saying the city did not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. That case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Last week, a federal judge in Missouri upheld a similar ordinance.
Kanjorski's campaign spokesman, Ed Mitchell, said he had no comment yesterday on the immigration issue. In the summer, amid speculation that Barletta would run, Kanjorski issued a news release touting his own votes against amnesty and for border security.
Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman Robert Gleason, who had recruited Barletta to run for the House, said he was "thrilled" by Barletta's announcement.
"I believe that it is important for our country to have the very best leaders representing us, and I have no doubt that Lou Barletta is that type of leader," he said.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party issued a news release characterizing Barletta as a political opportunist.
Mary Isenhour, the party's executive director, said Kanjorski had delivered on many issues in the district, such as increased funding for veterans' homes, that were more pressing than immigration.
"The 11th District is a lot bigger than Hazleton," Isenhour said. Barletta "has already failed on immigration."
Kanjorski has a sizable fund-raising lead, with $1.5 million in his campaign account as of Dec. 31. Barletta is starting his campaign more than $153,000 in debt from his 2002 House race.
But Barletta, saying he had generated $500,000 to defend the city in the lawsuit, believes he can be a competitive fund-raiser.
"People were handing me checks today," he said.