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With abortion and inflation in the background, manufacturing is playing a key role in this Lehigh Valley congressional race

While the heavy industrial jobs have largely disappeared from the Lehigh Valley, the echoes of that era are playing a role in a nationally watched congressional race.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild  (D., Pa.), right, speaks with James Romeo, president of Lehigh Heavy Forge, while touring the facility.
U.S. Rep. Susan Wild (D., Pa.), right, speaks with James Romeo, president of Lehigh Heavy Forge, while touring the facility.Read moreBRADLEY C BOWER

BETHLEHEM — For nearly two centuries, the Lehigh Valley was a symbol of American industrial might, a place where people could find family-sustaining jobs producing steel for the country’s skyscrapers and battleships.

While the heavy industrial jobs have largely disappeared from the stretch of the Lehigh River connecting Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, the echoes of that era can be heard in a nationally watched congressional district that could help determine control of the U.S. House.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Wild is facing a rematch in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District against Republican Lisa Scheller, who is CEO of Silberline Manufacturing, an aluminum effect pigments maker founded by her grandfather.

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Wild, who was the first woman to serve as Allentown’s city solicitor, on Tuesday launched a two-week TV ad campaign attacking Silberline’s record under Scheller for closing plants in the U.S. while opening facilities in China and other locations overseas.

After a tour last week of Lehigh Heavy Forge, a successor company to the famed Bethlehem Steel, Wild said in an interview that she believed Scheller’s position as head of a multinational corporation would create a conflict of interest if she were elected to Congress.

“Silberline, which is [Scheller’s] company, is a privately owned company. The focus is profit for the family members and whoever the other shareholders are of that company,” Wild, 65, said. “The focus is not on making sure that the people of Pennsylvania 7 grow and benefit as a result of that company.”

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Scheller spokesperson Pierce Frauenheim disputed that Silberline sent American jobs to China, noting the company has maintained scores of jobs in the U.S. despite competing in a global market that has favored overseas manufacturers.

“Silberline has created thousands of jobs over the last 60 years, now employing second- and third-generation workers in Pennsylvania, and has never shipped a single job overseas,” Frauenheim said. “Lisa is proud of her record creating high-quality manufacturing jobs for middle-class families, while Susan Wild has not created a single job during her career to support Pennsylvania families.”

The campaign, however, did not dispute that its overseas workforce has grown in recent years, while the number of employees it has in the U.S. has gone down, in large part due to the closure of a plant in Indiana.

A rematch with national implications

As Democrats seek to hold onto power in Washington in the midterm election, the race has become a priority for both national parties.

Wild won their first matchup in 2020 by 4 percentage points, but decennial redistricting has made the seat more favorable to Republicans with the addition of Carbon County. The district also includes Lehigh and Northampton Counties, and parts of Monroe County.

The Lehigh Valley is once again on the upswing thanks in part to growth in the health care industry, as well as jobs in more modern forms of manufacturing.

“It’s not just about steel products in this district,” Wild said. “We have evolved to manufacturing advanced computer items, semiconductor chips, medical devices, and it’s really the heart and soul of this district.”

Wild, who grew up in a military family, said she hopes to keep that momentum going by supporting programs that make the area competitive for manufacturing. She is the lead sponsor of the Regional Innovation Act, which would boost regions that have the potential to expand their technology industries.

A member of the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus for more centrist Democrats, Wild has described herself as a “pro-business” and “pragmatic” lawmaker. She supports abortion rights, and said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade made America “a nation where a once-guaranteed right for all women has been shattered.”

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Scheller, 63, is in line within the conservative social politics of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed her 2020 run but has not yet weighed in this cycle. She opposes abortion rights, has criticized the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports, and says on her website that she wants to “restore election integrity so Pennsylvania voters have confidence in the elections process,” echoing Trump’s lies about his loss in the 2020 election to President Joe Biden.

Although Scheller leads a business that has been in her family for three generations, her path to corporate leadership was far from direct. Addicted to heroin in her early 20s, Scheller has been in recovery for 40 years, and now works to help others struggling with addiction. She took over her family’s company in the late 1990s after the unexpected death of her brother.

Headquartered just outside the district in Tamaqua, Pa., Silberline lists on its website two facilities in China, as well as others in India, Singapore, Mexico, Scotland, and Brazil.

Silberline in 2016 closed a plant in Lansford, which is in Carbon County. The Scheller campaign said all workers at the Lansford plants were offered jobs in Tamaqua.

Scheller, who previously served on the Lehigh County board of commissioners, said she’s running for Congress to “take my experience as a mother, job creator, and a leader for those in recovery, to work every day to stand up for Pennsylvanians.”

“When I travel the district, I hear firsthand how working families are suffering under Susan Wild’s failed leadership — ranging from inflation and rising energy prices to the addiction crisis to open borders that threaten public safety in our communities,” Scheller said in a statement. “I’m running to put an end to the out-of-touch policies, supported by Susan Wild, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, and to preserve the American dream for the next generation.”