National Democrats like first-time candidate in 6th Congressional race

    As candidates line up to compete for the Pennsylvania Congressional seat being vacated by Republican Jim Gerlach, it’s looks increasingly like Democrats may unite around first-time candidate and former Republican Michael Parrish.

    When Gerlach stunned the political world by announcing he won’t run for re-election, I expected a multi-candidate free-for-all among Democrats for the nomination to an open seat. The old wisdom is that when it comes to picking candidates for their party, Republicans settle their differences at the country club and unite around one, while the Democrats engage in a good old family brawl of a primary.

    Not this time, it seems.

    While Republicans have united around Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello, a number of Democratic elected officials have declined to run, and the only Democrat standing so far is Parrish, who lives in Malvern and runs a business in West Chester.

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    Marc Brumer, a spokesman for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called Parrish “a strong candidate,” and said he’s the only one the DCCC is talking to.

    I’m told the national party talked to a number of more prominent Democrats, in particular Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards, but that they weren’t interested in taking the plunge. While the district is potentially winnable for a Democrat, it was drawn by Republican lawmakers to protect Gerlach and make it an uphill slog for a Democrat.

    The 6th is a oddly-shaped district that includes parts of Chester, Montgomery, Lebanon and Berks Counties. It’s carefully carved around the city of Reading, excluding a nest of Democratic voters.

    Who is Michael Parrish?

    He’s a political newcomer, but Parrish has a great profile for the Republican-leaning district. He’s a West Point grad who served 13 years in the military. He served in Operation Desert Storm and is a colonel in the Army Reserve. He got an MBA in corporate finance from Wharton and is now CEO of Daleco Rescources, a publicly-traded company that does something with oil, gas and mineral deposits.

    But there is that little matter of his recent conversion to the Democratic party.

    In a telephone phone interview, Parris said he was “centrist, moderate independent” for most of his adult life, but spent years as a Republican in part because of a relationship he developed with Sen. John McCain while serving in Washington.

    But he said, “The Republican Party has drifted farther and farther to the right, and no longer reflects my values.” When I asked when he changed parties, he said he’d “mentally switched a few years ago,” but that he’d only changed his registration in December.

    He said he’d planned to run for the seat as a Democrat even before Gerlach announced his departure.

    Framing the message

    In an introductory campaign video (above), Parrish stands among revolutionary war cannons in Valley Forge National Park and says, “Congress refuses to take on the tough fights anymore. They’d rather shut down the government than come up with solutions, and put veterans benefits, retirement savings, and our whole economy at risk.”

    Note that Parrish doesn’t blame Republicans for the shut down in that script. In fact, nowhere in his video or on his website does Parrish reveal that he’s running as a Democrat. It’s not the first time a candidate has downplayed party affiliation to appeal to independent voters, but it will be interesting to see how Parrish balances that appeal with his need to connect with veteran Democratic activists and donors he’ll want to enlist in his cause.

    Parrish speaks in the video of ending “unnecessary regulations that are holding (small businesses) back” and  “cutting wasteful spending and being smarter with our tax dollars,” two very Republican themes.

    But he also talks on the video about “investing in our schools, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math” and “working to make college more affordable.”

    If Parrish is the only candidate, he will have a few months to hone his message, build bridges to Democrats, sharpen his political skills and raise money before he has to take on Costello. He should get plenty of help from national Democrats, who see this as one of a handful of winnable seats in 2014.

    But Parrish isn’t assured of a free run to the nomination just yet. Manan Trivedi, who was the party’s candidate in 2010 and 2012, hadn’t planned to run before Gerlach’s announcement but is now considering the prospect. Chester County State Sen. Andy Dinniman and Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone didn’t return my calls Friday, though party leaders I’ve spoken to doubt they’ll jump in.

    And someone not yet on our radar could go decide to give it a shot. They have until March 11th to file nominating petitions for the May 20th party primary.

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