Our View | Clear choice between ideologies in the new 81st District

Voters in the 81st Legislative District will choose one of two Republicans, incumbent Mike Fleck or challenger Richard Irvin, on Tuesday for their next state representative.

To some, that may seem like selecting between vanilla and vanilla bean ice cream. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The two candidates, though sharing a party and both equally eager to lead the revised district, present clearly different choices.

It’s the first race for the new 81st, which, thanks to redistricting, includes parts of Centre County once represented by state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township.

Most of the district lies in Huntingdon County, but it also encompasses Huston, Worth, Taylor, Patton and Halfmoon townships; parts of Ferguson and Benner townships; and Port Matilda and State College.

The race has been noteworthy for another reason. Fleck, who’s running for a fifth term, lost the GOP primary in the spring to Irvin, who ran a write-in campaign. However, Fleck squeaked into the general election on the Democratic ballot by cross-filing.

But Fleck has told voters he’ll remain a Republican if re-elected.

“I’m not necessarily running as a Democrat,” he said to the Centre Daily Times editorial board. “I’m on the Democratic ballot but I’m still a registered Republican. You don’t have to switch parties.”

In his words, he’s “pretty much a moderate.”

“I very much stand by my record, that I voted (for) the (interests of the) district,” he said. “Just because the Republican Party is pushing something doesn’t mean it’s in the best interest of our district.”

Fleck, who sits on the House Education Committee and views education as his top issue, would bring an independent, bipartisan streak — a rare commodity in politics these days — to another term.

Bucking his party leadership, he has opposed school vouchers and the privatization of nursing at state prisons, two of which are in the district.

His support for unions runs counter to many of his GOP colleagues and has contributed to criticism from opponents that he’s not conservative enough. But he has been endorsed by business groups, suggesting they’re happy with his work in support of small businesses.

Irvin, the Huntingdon County treasurer, shares some overlap with his opponent. Like Fleck, he’s in favor of replacing the property tax with an expanded sales tax, and he’s pro-business, saying he wants to bring more “family-sustaining” jobs to the district.

But mostly, Irvin stands to the right of Fleck.

“I consider myself a conservative,” Irvin told the editorial board.

In fact, he said, he decided to run in part because district Republicans told him they wanted an alternative in the election. His main platform seems out of the standard GOP playbook.

“Less government, holding the line on taxes, enabling our local officials to handle regional matters without the mandates that the state pushes down on them,” Irvin said.

Of some of his supporters, he said, “You have a group of voters that I think are probably moving to the point that they may be a little upset with the fact that the incumbent is leaning more toward your unions and more toward big government, rather than the conservative values of the 81st District.”

We’ll know in two days whether Irvin has enough supporters in a historically conservative stronghold to unseat Fleck. Or maybe Fleck can carry enough Democrats who like his eclectic nature and Republicans who approve of his record to return to Harrisburg.

Fleck offers years of experience in the trenches serving the district, including valuable connections within the capital — no small matter in achieving results and helping constituents.

For his part, Irvin has the financial acumen and tax-code knowledge gained from 18 years in his elected position. But his job has been to enforce policy, not make it.

His more partisan beliefs may make it harder for him to reach across the aisle for meaningful legislation.

An ugly side to the campaign recently surfaced when an Irvin supporter and member of the Huntingdon County GOP committee, Tom Ritchey, posted an anti-gay slur online meant to mock Fleck. Fleck came out after being re-elected in 2012.

Irvin said he didn’t know about the insult and that Fleck’s sexual orientation is not a problem for him, though he admitted it is for some of his supporters. We were disappointed that he didn’t disavow Ritchey’s prejudice more strongly, but to his credit, he has stuck to the issues.

We urge district residents to do the same when voting.

Two candidates might share a party, but there is a choice.