The death of Senator Dave Arnold has left a “gaping hole” in the leadership of Lebanon County and Harrisburg, local businessman Christopher Gebhard says. He hopes to fill that vacancy with a similar political presence.
Gebhard, 46, of North Cornwall Township, was chosen by the Lebanon County Republican Committee in early March to run in the May 18 special election to fill the 48th Senate District seat, which was left vacant when Arnold died on Jan. 17 from brain cancer.
The 48th District includes Lebanon County and small parts of York and Dauphin counties. According to statistics provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, party affiliation among registered voters in the district is 50.5 percent Republican, 33.9 percent Democratic and 15.6 percent others.
Also vying for the seat are Democrat Calvin “Doc” Clements, Libertarian Tim McMaster and Independent Ed Krebs. Arnold’s unexpired term runs through November 2022. This is the second special election for the district seat in two years. Arnold won a special election in October 2019 after state Sen. Mike Folmer resigned amid charges that he possessed child pornography.
Gebhard is president and CEO of Hoaster Gebhard & Co., an insurance and risk management firm. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and children Davis, 12, and Drew, 9.
He believes that his lack of prior public service puts him in a good position to serve the people of the district.
“I am not a career politician and have decades of experience in the private sector,” Gebhard said. “Being the owner of an insurance firm, I feel like my top priority is to help set up my clients for success, even in unforeseen circumstances. Being there to assist people and businesses is my top priority.”
His occupation also has put him in good stead to see the impact of COVID-19 on other businesses, he said.
“This past year, in particular, I have had to see firsthand how businesses were struggling throughout this pandemic,” he said. “The amount of government overreach and anti-private sector concern is one of the main reasons I decided to run for this seat. We must get them back on track.”
He said Pennsylvania’s response to the COVID-19 – particularly in the state’s nursing and long-term care facilities – “is heartbreaking and borders on criminal,” and he said Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the crisis “is embarrassing.”
Lebanon County Republican Committee chairman Ed Lynch said in a statement in March that Gebhard “will be a strong conservative voice for the residents of the 48th Senatorial District as they demand no less… I believe his experience in the private sector offers a different perspective from the career politicians in Harrisburg and I look forward to ensuring he is elected May 18 as the next Pennsylvania State Senator for the 48th.”
Gebhard serves on the boards of the Lebanon Community Library and Mount Gretna Theater, is former chairman of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce and is a former board member of the American Heart Association. He said he hopes to continue Arnold’s work in Harrisburg.
“While Dave was in office only a year, he laid a solid foundation from which to build,” he said. “First, Dave certainly restored respect and dignity to this seat. He led the fight to increase the penalties against child pornography and against Governor Wolf’s authoritarian abuse of his emergency powers. I certainly hope to continue to build on those efforts.”
His varied background might give him an edge in the political arena, Gebhard said.
“While Dave’s expertise was in the legal realm, I think my own unique perspective on how to tackle some of the big issues will prove very useful,” he explained. “For example, one of the major costs driving up property taxes in addition to the rising costs of healthcare and pension costs, remains the unfunded mandates coming from both Washington and Harrisburg. We need to work to put an end to theses unnecessary and costly edicts. Education should be driven from the ground up, not pushed down from the top.”
In a press release in early March, Gebhard said his “three legislative priorities in Harrisburg will be the repeal of Act 77, reopening Pennsylvania’s economy and fighting against a Governor who pushes tax-and-spend agendas and dictates public policy by use of an emergency declaration.”
Act 77 was a bipartisan bill passed in 2019 expanded mail-in voting and allowed voters to request and submit their mail-in or absentee ballot up to 50 days before the election.
Asked for clarification on his opposition to the bill, Gebhard said he would like to see Act 77 repealed “but the political reality is that will be very difficult to accomplish.”
However, he said, “I think there are basic ideas that everyone can agree on. Nobody should feel their vote doesn’t count or the system is unfair. For instance, in person voters and mail in voters should be treated equally; signature verification is a must. Each county should use the same rules, you can’t let one county ‘cure’ ballots while other counties discard them. Also, ballot drop boxes are a perfect way to promote ballot harvesting… We need a massive dose of common sense when it comes to how we vote in Pennsylvania. I support the reinstitution of Voter ID laws.”
As for reopening the economy, Gebhard said it’s a first-day priority for him if he takes office.
“We can provide guidance for the private sector to ensure they operate in a safe manner, but those guidelines should not be mandates,” he said. “Pennsylvania’s economy is at a critical point and my biggest fear is that the Governor will again choose to arbitrarily close it down again.”
That’s why Gebhard favors a constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s emergency powers “so he can’t inflict the damage upon the private sector again.”
The governor’s proposed budget will make matters worse, he argued. “The long-term solution is to not just keep handing out massive grants over and over,” he said. “We should start by removing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles and regulations for new ventures to begin and open quickly, provide relief to those businesses that were actually impacted by the pandemic and focus on reopening our schools safely.”
Gebhard declined to predict who among his challengers would present the biggest challenge in the race.
“Just like in business, I strongly believe that if I work hard and get my message out, I can do a lot to increase my chance of being elected,” he said. “Ultimately the people will choose who the best candidate is on May 18 and that’s the only opinion that really matters.”
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