- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

HOUSTON — After a big win in Saturday’s Kansas caucuses, Rick Santorum is riding high almost everywhere but in his native Pennsylvania.

While Christian-right leaders such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Tom LeFever, Rebecca Hagelin and Richard Viguerie were holding a fundraiser in Texas for the former senator Friday, some in his hometown of Pittsburgh were expressing doubts about the candidate’s reliability as an advocate of small government and fiscal integrity.

“I guess you could say there’s a disconnect between Rick Santorum’s claim to be a small-government fiscal conservative and the Pittsburgh tunnel project he pushed for as a U.S. senator,” said Jack Brooks, a former top official in a powerful Pennsylvania trade union that backed Mr. Santorum’s failed Senate re-election bid in 2006.

Mr. Santorum, running a shoestring campaign to wrest the Republican nomination from front-runner Mitt Romney, has claimed to be “the true conservative” in the GOP race. Not surprisingly, his rivals on the national scene say he is anything but. A campaign ad by his rival, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, tags Mr. Santorum as a “fake fiscal conservative.”

Newt Gingrich, appearing on Fox News on Sunday, again questioned Mr. Santorum’s conservative bona fides.

What’s gone largely unnoticed, though, is the deep skepticism about Mr. Santorum’s fiscal and social credentials on the right among those who know him well from his hometown of Pittsburgh.

A staunchly pro-life Catholic with backing from Protestant evangelical leaders, he represented Pennsylvania, first in the U.S. House and then in the Senate, before losing to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. in 2006.

Mr. Santorum’s emergence as the main challenger to Mr. Romney is based in large part on his appearance as one of the Republican Party’s most successful amalgamators of social and fiscal conservatism.

Yet from Gov. Tom Corbett to U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, state GOP Chairman Rob Gleason and on down the political food chain, no major GOP politician in the state has endorsed Mr. Santorum.

One complaint is that Mr. Santorum’s claim of being the only truly small-government conservative among the three top GOP nomination contenders is undermined by his support of big-government spending while in the Senate — especially when it comes to the mile-long Pittsburgh tunnel project that was part of a deal with Mr. Brooks and his union.

In exchange for helping push through federal support for the project, Mr. Santorum won the endorsement of the state’s building and construction trade unions — including Mr. Brooks‘ 14,000-member carpenters union.

Even Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican from Pennsylvania, turned against the project when its overruns climbed to $450 million and then hit $528 million.

“We had a deal with Santorum,” said Mr. Brooks, whose Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, along with other major building and construction trade unions, endorsed Mr. Santorum after the senator went to bat in Washington for construction of the tunnel under the Allegheny River. The tunnel’s only stop is at the two taxpayer-funded sports stadiums built with Mr. Santorum’s support.

“Very seldom are you going to have a union endorse a Republican,” said Mr. Brooks. “But the project created 4,000 jobs” — even if they were temporary — for workers in the construction and building trades.

Critics, including Mr. Specter, say the tunnel’s gargantuan costs far exceed its projected benefits to western Pennsylvania.

Santorum makes a big deal out of earmarks and he participated in one of the biggest of all time, twice as big as ‘the bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska, which cost taxpayers $240 million and was never built,” said David O’Loughlin, a Pittsburgh developer and contemporary of Mr. Santorum‘s.

Proud of having brought the bacon back to the state he represented, Mr. Santorum has defended earmarks but more recently has said lawmakers went overboard with the practice.

While Mr. Santorum has been forced to defend his Senate votes on spending because of attacks by Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Paul, his religious and social traditionalism have gone unchallenged — for the most part.

Rick is definitely a social conservative and is very true to the pro-life movement, but fiscally he supported the big-government position,” said Larry Dunn, who was the Republican Allegheny County Commission chairman.

Kenneth Behrend, a Pittsburgh lawyer and former GOP official who has known Mr. Santorum since their days in the Young Republicans, said the presidential candidate wasn’t always so sure of his stand on abortion.

Mr. Behrend said that before Mr. Santorum first ran for Congress in 1990, he “tried out a speech with all of us in Young Republicans” and “didn’t mention the pro-life issue.”

“Afterward, I asked him where he stood, and he said, ‘I haven’t made up my mind. I don’t have an answer right now.’

“Then when he took a pro-life position, he suddenly had all kinds of volunteers helping him run for Congress,” said Mr. Behrend, who described himself as a “populist Republican” who switched to the Democratic Party when he saw the GOP “backing big government” and “opposing individual rights.”

“I’m not sure I fit in either party now,” he added.

Mr. O’Loughlin said he thinks Pennsylvania voters became disenchanted with Mr. Santorum in part because the soaring price tag of the tunnel project increased not only federal costs, but state and county taxpayers’ costs as well.

“State and county taxpayers were on the hook for 20 percent,” he said. “That money had to be subtracted from much-needed bridge and road projects in western Pennsylvania. The point is that money was taken from good infrastructure and directed to bad, in what was clearly becoming an overfunded boondoggle.”

Mr. O’Loughlinblames “Santorum’s political agenda, with little or no regard to the consequences to the taxpayers, community economic benefit or safety of the bridges, roads or other infrastructure. On a local level, the senator’s decisions were very hurtful; on a national level, they would be calamitous.”

The 53-year-old presidential contender’s role in supporting public financing of new stadiums for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates and the tunnel project still sticks in the craw of friends back home.

“It was disconcerting to see Rick take a public position in favor of taking public money to pay for stadiums instead of having the teams’ owners pay for those stadiums,” said Mr. Behrend. “Typically, whichever interest helped support his political career, that’s the one he supported.”

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