Hazleton area native joins race for Congress

Hazleton area native joins race for Congress
By Kent Jackson
January 23, 2019

HAZLE TWP­ — After working on campaigns across the country, Jim Bognet came home to Hazleton to run his own campaign for Congress.

To enter the crowded race for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, Bognet quit his most recent job as senior vice president for communications of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

President Donald Trump appointed Bognet to the job, and Bognet is running to support Trump.

“I think this election is going to be about defending President Trump from the out-of-control witch hunt the liberal Democrats … have launched against him. In my mind, the defining issue of 2020 is will you stand with the president against the out-of-control liberals so we can get our agenda done and get things done for the people of the PA 8th District?” Bognet said today when announcing his candidacy.

While the impeachment trial under way in the Senate now is expected to end this month, well before the primary election on April 28, Bognet said Republicans have to send a message or else Democrats in the House will continue trying to oust Trump during a second term.

“If they’re willing to impeach over something like this who knows what they’ll impeach over next? I think they will stop at nothing to hurt this president.”

During Trump’s administration, the stock market has climbed and unemployment fell, and Bognet wants to bring the benefits of a rising economy to the district, which stretches from Hazleton to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton.

“Good jobs at good wages are very important. We have to help the job creators,” Bognet said. The export-import bank loaned money to allow exports to happen and helps small businesses. The president’s goal for the bank is to help rebuild the industrial heart of the county.

Bognet referred to the 1980s when he was growing up in Hazleton and workers could sustain their families on jobs at the Valmont Industrial Park.

Many from the community, however, have to drive to New York, New Jersey, Harrisburg or elsewhere to find work.

After graduating from Hazleton Area High School — where he played two sports and kicked a field goal to win the first football game that the Cougars ever played in 1992 — Bognet started his travels. He went to Penn State University and interned for then-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum before heading to UCLA, where he earned a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration. He volunteered on the campaign for governor of Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whom he became deputy economic adviser. Later, he assisted around the country on campaigns for president of Mitt Romney and candidates for governor, U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Most recently, he was chief executive officer for the campaign of Martha McSally, a fighter pilot who won a Senate seat in Arizona two years ago.

Bognet, 44, based his political consulting business, JRB Strategies, in Hazleton and pays taxes there, which is where he started in politics.

As a 6-year-old, Bognet handed out slate cards on election day in 1981 when his uncle, George Hayden Sr., won a seat in Hazleton City Council.

“I loved the majesty of exercising our democratic rights to make our city better. My uncle George always encouraged my love of politics,” Bognet said.

In 2002, he came back from law school to help Lou Barletta in an unsuccessful run for the House seat that Barletta later captured.

“I got to see him interacting with people, got to see how much he cared about improving the lives of citizens,” Bognet said.

As a base for his own campaign, Bognet took over the lunch room at his father’s construction business, Bognet Inc., on North Church Street. In the lunch room, he gathered with George Hayden Jr., chairman of his campaign finance committee; Michael Reich, a veteran journalist and the campaign’s media adviser, and Charles Russell, the campaign’s political director.

Vote totals from the last election were scrawled on the board along with breakdowns by counties and turnout figures. Using data like that, the team will build a model and prepare strategies to reach voters.

“By the end of the campaign, this room will be covered with white boards,” said Bognet, who set up a campaign website at bognetforcongress.com.

Dressed in a sweater and jeans, he posed for a photo to start his campaign in front of the oversized hammer, saw, plane and other tools that decorate the front wall of the construction business.

Since his father’s near-fatal heart attack three years ago, Bognet has been spending more time at home and is renting a residence while shopping for a home near Hazleton.

One thing Bognet enjoys about his own campaign is meeting new folks and talking with people he grew up with about issues they care about. He has heard complaints about the rain tax, a storm water management fee that stems from federal water quality regulations, and havoc that decisions made in Harrisburg like closing Retreat State prison wreak on workers and residents.

Stories about the opioid epidemic resonate with him. Two relatives died because of drugs.

Bognet said his first bill would establish a federal death penalty for drug kingpins and traffickers, but he also said the nation needs more counselors to provide treatment.

“We have to help our addicts get back on their feet,” he said.

He calls Hazleton and the rest of the 8th District Trump country, reflective of how the area helped carry the president to victory four years ago.

Matt Cartwright, a Democrat who voted to impeach Trump, holds the 8th District seat that Republicans think they can win.

Five other Republicans — Harry Haas, a Luzerne County councilman; Earl Granville, who lost a leg serving in the military in Afghanistan; Teddy Daniels, a decorated veteran and former police officer; Michael Marsicano, a former Hazleton mayor who switched parties; and Michael Cammisa, manager of Bottlenecks Saloon in West Hazleton — said they seek the nomination.

“I just feel like there is such an opportunity here to send a message to one of Nancy Pelosi’s lieutenants. Matt Cartwright says he represents the district but then he votes in lock step with Pelosi,” Bognet said. “There’s a big field, but campaigns are not about the candidates. They’re about the voters … What’s important is talking to voters and giving them the confidence that you’re going to go and fight for them every day and that you understand what they worry about, you understand their issues. So my campaign is going to be focused on the voters, not on myself.”