During her one term in Congress, Kathleen A. (Kathy) Dahlkemper worked to keep the needs of her entire district in mind. “I made a promise to the people of Western Pennsylvania not to work for a political party, but to advocate for their interests and find practical, common sense solutions to the challenges facing our region. I take that promise very seriously and work every day to keep it.”1
Kathy Dahlkemper was born Kathleen A. Steenberge on December 10, 1957, to Carl W. and M. Janet Clarke Steenberge in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was raised in Erie, where she attended Edinboro State College and received her BS in dietetics in 1982.2 She briefly worked in Houston, Texas, as a dietician before moving back to Erie in 1986 to open her own office.3 While in college, she became pregnant and got married. She and her husband divorced soon after, and Dahlkemper raised her son, Aron, as a single mother on food stamps and without health care. She later married Dan Dahlkemper, and together they had four children: Gretchen, Linden, Tricia, and Nathan. She worked at a landscaping company owned by her father-in-law, and in 1997 Dahlkemper and her husband took over the business. Dahlkemper served as the director of the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park, Pennsylvania, from 2000 to 2008.4
Dahlkemper was persuaded to run for Congress by friends and family in 2007. “Honestly, it was not something I was thinking about before I was asked,” she recalled.5 In her first attempt for political office, she campaigned as a concerned citizen looking to effect change, using her experience as a single mother and a small business owner to connect with voters. After winning a four-way contest for the Democratic nomination, she faced seven-term Republican incumbent Philip Sheridan English in the 2008 general election. Dahlkemper pointed to growing discontent with President George W. Bush and challenged English for supporting the administration. Dahlkemper campaigned on the economy and job creation, issues that northwest Pennsylvania, once an industrial hub, had struggled with for many years. She defeated English 51 percent to 49 percent.6 When she was sworn in on January 6, 2009, Dahlkemper became the first woman to represent the northwestern region of Pennsylvania in Congress.7
Dahlkemper promised voters she would find bipartisan solutions and take centrist positions in the House. She joined the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition—which sought to target federal spending—opposed gun control, and referred to her anti-abortion, anti-death penalty views as her “whole life” stance, which she said meant “the sanctity of life from birth to natural death.”8 While she backed major spending legislation such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act following the financial crisis, she voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 because of the potentially adverse effects it would have on energy prices and manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania.9 Dahlkemper also was the principal sponsor of a piece of legislation that enjoyed bipartisan support, the Homebuyer Assistance and Improvement Act of 2010, which extended a tax credit for first time homebuyers.10
Dahlkemper served on the Agriculture; Science and Technology; and Small Business Committees; and she chaired the Small Business Subcommittee on Regulations and Healthcare. On that panel, she authored several bills including the Small Business Health Information Technology Financing Act that would have created a loan program through the Small Business Administration to help businesses purchase technology that generated electronic health records. While the bill passed the House by a voice vote, it did not come to a vote in the Senate.11
In addition to her focus on small businesses, Dahlkemper aimed to revitalize her district’s economy through infrastructure and agricultural projects. She worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to secure $6 million for an extension of the Erie International Airport, and she joined other members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation to stop the creation of tolls on Interstate 80, citing potential damage to local commerce.12 Dahlkemper used her seat on the Agriculture Committee to aid farmers in her district by joining other dairy-state Members to reconstitute the bipartisan Congressional Dairy Farmers Caucus in 2009. She also pushed for expansion of the Dairy Product Price Support Program run by the Department of Agriculture.13
From her seat on Science and Technology, Dahlkemper looked to find new stores of rare earth minerals and to break America’s dependence on China for such materials. Her Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010 required the Department of Energy to create programs to help find important mineral resources and fund domestic production. Her bill cleared the committee and passed the House in September 2010.14
Outside of her committee work, Dahlkemper’s experience as a dietician informed the negotiations over health care reform during the 111th Congress (2009–2011). She wrote the Young Adult Healthcare Coverage Act of 2009, which altered insurance laws to allow children under the age of 30 to stay on a parent’s health insurance plan.15 The popular measure was included within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with the coverage age reduced to 26. Ultimately, Dahlkemper was one of a group of conservative Democrats who withheld their support for the health care bill until President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order that barred the use of federal funds for abortions.16
During the 2010 midterm elections, which saw a wave of Republican victories, Dahlkemper lost re-election to Mike Kelly, a Republican auto dealer and city councilman from Butler, Pennsylvania, who took 58 percent of the vote; Dahlkemper captured 44 percent.17 “I delivered on the promises I made on the campaign trail,” Dahlkemper said after conceding the race to Kelly. “To reform the health care system, take on the fiscal irresponsibility in Washington and strengthen the economy of Western Pennsylvania.”18
Dahlkemper returned to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she successfully ran for the seat of Erie County executive in 2013, becoming the county’s second female executive in its history.19 In 2017 she was re-elected to a second term.20
1“Vote Analysis Places Dahlkemper at Center of House,” 28 February 2010, Targeted News Service.
2Edinboro State College became a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education on July 1, 1983, and was renamed Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
3Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2009): 1271.
4Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (10 June 2009): H6524; Margie Omero, “Is There Room for a Pro-Life Democratic Woman? The Case for Kathy Dahlkemper,” 25 May 2011, Huffington Post, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-there-room-for-a-pro-l_b_773918; Kevin Flowers, “Kathy Dahlkemper: ‘I’m Fine About Moving On,’” 19 December 2010, Erie Times-News (PA): n.p.; Malik Zouhali-Worrall, “Elect an Entrepreneur,” 5 November 2008, CNN Money, https://money.cnn.com/galleries/2008/smallbusiness/0810/gallery.entrepreneurs_for_congress.smb/index.html.
5Madeline Buckley, “2012 Project Seeking Women Candidates,” 17 July 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: n.p.
6Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
7Daniel M. Shea and Stephen K. Medvic, “All Politics Is Local … Except When It Isn’t,” in Cases in Congressional Campaigns: Incumbents Playing Defense, ed. Randall E. Adkins and David A. Dulio (New York: Routledge, 2010): 164.
8Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (10 June 2009): H6524.
9“Erie Times-News Endorses Kathy Dahlkemper for U.S. House,” 24 October 2010, GoErie.com, https://www.goerie.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=%2F20101024%2FOPINION01%2F310249998 (link discontinued); “Rep. Dahlkemper: Climate Change Bill Places Disproportionate Burden on Northwestern PA,” 26 June 2009, States News Service; Darren Samuelsohn, “Climate: ‘I Know It’s Going to be a Close Vote’—Obama,” 25 June 2009, Environment & Energy Publishing: n.p.
10Homebuyer Assistance and Improvement Act of 2010, PL 111-198, 124 Stat. 1356 (2010); Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 June 2010): H4944; Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (30 June 2010): S5679.
11Small Business Health Information Technology Financing Act, H.R. 3014, 111th Cong. (2009).
12“Dahlkemper Helps Deliver $6 Million to Erie Airport,” 12 July 2010, States News Service; Daniel Malloy, “Lawmakers Go to D.C. to Fight I-80 Tolling,” 18 December 2009, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: B4.
13Jim Hook, “Franklin County Area Dairy Farmers Talk to House Ag. Committee in Harrisburg,” 4 May 2010, Public Opinion (Chambersburg, PA): n.p.; “Rep. Dahlkemper Votes to Promote Rural Communities, Farmers,” 9 July 2009, States News Service.
14Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010, H.R. 6160, 111th Cong. (2010); House Committee on Science and Technology, Rare Earth and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. 644 (2010): 5–6.
15“Dahlkemper Announces that Some Insurance Companies Will Voluntarily Provide Immediate Coverage for Young Adults Under Age 26,” 20 April 2010, States News Service.
16Timothy McNulty, “Democrat Hopes to Keep 3rd District House Seat,” 20 September 2010, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: A8.
17“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
18Timothy McNulty, “Altmire Retains Seat, Dahlkemper Out,” 3 November 2010, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: B1.
19Kevin Flowers, “Dahlkemper Elected Erie County Executive,” 6 November 2013, Erie Times-News (PA): n.p.; Kevin Flowers, “Dahlkemper Sworn In As County Executive,” 3 January 2014, Erie Times-News: n.p.
20“County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper,” Erie County, Pennsylvania, accessed 4 March 2020, https://eriecountypa.gov/elected-officials/erie-county-executive/.