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Lou Barletta is reintroducing himself to Pa. voters as he runs for governor after a rough 2018 campaign

He was an early and outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, which cleared the way for him to become the 2018 GOP Senate nominee. But things went downhill from there.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta, center, talks to residents and business owners as he campaigns in the Italian Market in South Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta, center, talks to residents and business owners as he campaigns in the Italian Market in South Philadelphia on Tuesday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Lou Barletta had just finished catching up with Geno Vento, proprietor of the eponymous South Philadelphia cheesesteak joint.

Now it was time to get to work.

Sleeves rolled up, Barletta donned an apron Tuesday and started flipping steaks. A cook prepared the Cheez Whiz and advised the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor: “Six, seven slices, and you’re good to go.” Barletta threw on a heap of onions and looked satisfied. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” he said.

It’s been a long couple of years for Barletta, a 65-year-old former congressman and Hazleton mayor who built his political brand on opposition to illegal immigration. He was an early and outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, which cleared the way for him to become the 2018 GOP Senate nominee.

But things went downhill from there.

He faced criticism in conservative media for running what the Washington Examiner described as a “lackadaisical” and “disorganized” campaign, and ultimately got trounced by 13 percentage points against Sen. Bob Casey. He left Congress in 2019 and largely receded from public view as a new crop of pro-Trump Republicans emerged.

Now Barletta wants back in.

» READ MORE: Pa. Republicans are taking aim at Tom Wolf, not Biden, as they look to win the 2022 governor’s race

Announcing his campaign for governor this month, Barletta blasted Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the pandemic, liberal energy policies, left-wing activists’ push to “defund the police,” and “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants.

But unlike his last campaign, there will be no glide path to the GOP nomination in next year’s election — or the endorsement that could seal it.

Rivals are already angling for Trump’s approval. State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) met with Trump in New York this month, then told a radio interviewer that Trump encouraged him to run and pledged to campaign for him. And Mastriano argued Barletta was missing in action last year when Mastriano was busy trying to overturn Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania.

Those remarks prompted a Trump adviser to clarify that the former president hasn’t yet made an endorsement, underscoring his continued influence with Republican primary voters. Barletta has hired former Trump aides to advise his campaign.

“I’m not a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to supporting Donald Trump,” Barletta said in an interview Tuesday as he campaigned in the Italian Market. “Maybe Mr. Mastriano needs to check and see what everyone else is doing before he makes those comments.

“Let’s face it: This is still Donald Trump’s party. There’s no question about it,” Barletta added. “I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m going to try to earn that endorsement.”

» READ MORE: What Sean Parnell, Liz Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani show about Trump’s hold on Pennsylvania Republicans

So Barletta kicked off his campaign with a 13-county tour over 10 days, traveling from Erie in the state’s northwestern corner to Philadelphia in the southeast.

“People want change, and that’s what I’m hearing everywhere, no matter where it is,” he said.

He noted that Casey and Pat Toomey both lost statewide elections before winning their Senate seats, as did Arlen Specter.

“Sometimes you need to run once for people to get to know you,” Barletta said. “It’s not unusual, and I think that’s the advantage I now have over others who have not run statewide.”

Al Lindsay, the GOP chairman in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, said Barletta was “very well-received” when he campaigned there last week. “He looks like a great candidate,” Lindsay said. “His only problem is there’s a number of other good candidates.”

Other possible candidates have swung through the Western Pennsylvania county in recent weeks, Lindsay said, including former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and Republican strategist Charlie Gerow. Republican voters are itching to replace Wolf, who is term-limited. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is widely seen as the early Democratic front-runner.

“There’s a very strong sentiment against the Wolf administration and what’s happened, a palpable anger at being shut down,” Lindsay said.

Barletta is trying to tap into that frustration. Walking through the Italian Market, he asked business owners and workers how they fared during the pandemic.

Inside Claudio Specialty Foods, he ordered a pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano and discussed his post-congressional stint leading a coalition of Italian food manufacturers and explained how he pushed Trump to exempt Italian products from tariffs on European Union goods.

“I told him, I said, ‘What’s America without pasta?’” Barletta said.

He also said he successfully urged Trump to sign a proclamation protecting Columbus Day as a holiday, amid efforts by Native American and other activists to change the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, have changed the name in recent years, citing Columbus’ racist views and the genocide of Native Americans that began with his 1492 journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

» READ MORE: Philly Councilmember and Italian American groups sue Mayor Kenney for renaming Columbus Day

And there was some chatter about Philadelphia politics.

Outside Cannuli’s Quality Meats & Poultry, a sign advertised that only six customers could enter the store at a time. “Because our mayor’s a crumb,” one supporter told Barletta of Mayor Jim Kenney.

Among the supporters showing Barletta around was Jody Della Barba, a community activist and former secretary to Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. “I want our city to be safe,” Della Barba said. “We need somebody strong for Pennsylvania. Law and order, follow the rules.”

She said Barletta was a “major hit” when he attended a Columbus Day parade in 2018.

Eventually, the crowd made its way to Geno’s, and Barletta searched for his photo on the wall. Vento said some of the photos had been moved during renovations.

As they sat down, Vento pointed to one of Rudy Giuliani, taken while the former New York City mayor was running for president and considered a contender for the 2008 GOP nomination — long before his turn as Trump’s lawyer and fixer.

A reminder, perhaps, that politicians often have second and third acts — for better or worse.