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Jim Gerlach sits it out

After 20 years in Pa. legislature and Congress, he'll practice law again.

WASHINGTON - It was a strange experience for Jim Gerlach: After more than 20 years in public office, he was sitting out an election.

Gerlach, a Chester County Republican, had decided to leave office after a decade in the state legislature and 12 years in Congress - making for some odd feelings as he saw campaigns ramp up last fall without him.

Gerlach, 59, is one of three local members of Congress who leave office Jan. 3.

He, Jon Runyan (R., N.J.), and Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) spoke with The Inquirer in separate interviews this month as they cast some of their final votes.

They talked about life after Congress, problems inside the institution, and potential solutions.

Their words reflect shared experiences - two mentioned seeing constituents at a Wawa - and key differences.

Below are some of Gerlach's comments.

Question: What are you looking forward to after Congress?

Answer: Getting back in the private sector. I'm going to return to a law practice.

Having more time with my wife and kids and having weekends a little more open so that I can enjoy a football game or something like that.

Q: What firm?

A: Venable, a firm here in town [Washington].

Q: Will you be lobbying?

A: I don't intend to do lobbying work at this point, but I do intend to stay involved in public policy because I've always loved it.

Q: What will you miss most?

A: The policy stuff. I really enjoy working with colleagues to try to figure out the best public policy and try to move it through the legislative process. I enjoy that interaction with the other members, both Republican and Democrat. That's a great part of this job, so I'll miss that.

I will miss helping people, ordinary people with problems they have with government, and working it out with those agencies and those bureaucracies and getting them a real-life solution.

Q: In the media, we focus on the big votes, but what are typical constituent service issues you deal with?

A: Getting somebody eligible for the type of care he deserves because of his military service. Seniors that didn't get their Social Security check. Helping somebody with an immigration or visa issue.

(Waving his hands.) They realized that all of a sudden they need a visa because they have a trip coming up next week, and we're going to help them get that because they're frazzled that they're not going to be able to leave for their trip to France.

Q: What are you proudest of?

A: The National Veterans' Cemetery in Bucks County was the first bill I had passed into law, and that's a special thing.

Q: You must see cool stuff. Anything you'll tell your kids or grandkids about?

A: Your first State of the Union is always a "pinch me" moment. I wondered, sitting there, how a little kid from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, could be sitting there on the floor watching President [George W.] Bush.

Sitting with the president in his inner office on Air Force One was a "pinch me" moment.

But it's also a tough job, it's hard work, and people need to understand, particularly in competitive districts, this is a seven-day-a-week job, and it's 70, 80 hours a week.

Q: Congress is held in such low esteem. What's gone wrong?

A: We're not getting problems solved. We're constantly arguing, but we're not achieving anything, or very little.

Hopefully, in the next Congress, while everybody is there to represent their districts and their states, they're also there to get work done for the American people, and the bedrock of good policy is common sense, and I think there has to be less arguing and more commitment to achieving, and I think there's a lot of members that want to do that.

Q: Has it gotten worse in your time here?

A: It's gotten very cantankerous, that's for sure.

There's a lot of reasons for that, from Supreme Court decisions that allow for expenditures of money by people who are not the candidates and the political parties themselves, to the fact that we just seem to be in this era of the permanent campaign, that you barely get sworn in and you're having protests at your offices.

And certainly the people themselves are split over a lot of issues. At some point, you hope you have enough elected folks here who are real leaders who are going to break through that.

Q: Do you think the atmosphere in Washington has dissuaded people from running for office?

A: I'm sure there's a lot of people that would want to run, not just for Congress. Run for school board or township supervisor. They look at the process as very acrimonious and as being very anger-filled.

That's unfortunate. We need good citizens to offer themselves up for every level of public office, and they're all important. My mother was on the school board for 12 years, and that's a tough, tough job.

Q: What advice would you give to newcomers?

A: It's not a real hard formula to put together.

You have to stay in contact with your district. You have to be back in your district talking to people, going to events, them seeing you in the supermarket or at Wawa, them being able to talk to you about their issues, them being able to come into your office and talk to you.

Then you have to have good constituent service. You have to have people that will answer the phone when they call with a problem, and you have to have somebody there that's going to help them.

That's a lot of it, just demonstrating to people that you know them, you care about them, you're working hard for them.

Q: Any chance you run for office again?

A: I don't make plans to do that, but I would not rule out something down the road.

Q: Anything fun planned? Vacation?

A: Because I didn't have a campaign this year, in October, my wife and I went over to Italy for a couple weeks, so that was sort of our relaxation. And now I'm raring to go.

Q: Was it strange to not be running last fall?

A: Yes. (Laughs.) You saw all these yard signs out here, none of them were yours - "Ooh, this is a little weird."

Q: It sounds like how a football player feels the first year after he retires.

A: I played high school and college football - small college - but that next season, it was like, "Wow, this is really weird." It really was. It's a lot of the same feeling.

Coming Tuesday

Allyson Schwartz talks about her years in Congress and what lies ahead.EndText