Democrats swept all three of Tuesday’s special elections for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, delivering the party a majority in the chamber for the first time in more than a decade.
The special elections were a reaffirmation of last November’s election results, when Pennsylvanians voted to give Democrats a 102-to-101 majority, and is likely to end a current standoff about the state House’s operating rules. Pennsylvania will have a divided government for the next two years — Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, is in the governor’s mansion, and Republicans control the state Senate.
All three districts are located in heavily Democratic parts of Allegheny County. The 32nd District, largely in Penn Hills, had been represented by the late Anthony DeLuca; the 34th District, centered on Braddock and other towns just east of Pittsburgh, was formerly represented by now-U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; and the 35th District, based in McKeesport and the Mon Valley, was last held by now-Lt. Gov. Austin Davis.
The Democrat candidates — Joe McAndrew of the 32nd District, Abigail Salisbury of the 34th District and Matt Gergely of the 35th District — all won their races by double-digit points against Republican opponents.
State Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said Tuesday evening that she was excited to welcome the three members to the state House. She added that Democrats were ready to get to work in Harrisburg on a variety of issues, from improving public schools to defending abortion rights.
“We’re going have your back, and we recognize all the hard work that’s ahead — and we will not let you down,” McClinton told supporters from the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 9 union hall in Wilkins Tuesday night. “Our caucus has never been more unified, we have never had an agenda that we’ve been in control of … 24 of the last 28 years, we were not yet in the driver’s seat.”
It is not entirely clear who will now preside over the 203-seat state House.
A bipartisan coalition of legislators elected state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, as a compromise candidate for speaker when the state House first convened in January. At the time, Republicans had a temporary two-seat majority, and they claim to have pledged their support to Rozzi on the condition that he switch his party affiliation from Democratic to Independent.
Rozzi has kept his party affiliation while claiming to be the state’s “first independent speaker.” His first priority was a deeply personal one: pass a constitutional amendment creating a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. But a demand from Republicans to bundle Rozzi’s amendment with two others, which would institute a voter ID requirement and make it easier for legislators to overrule regulatory rules, created a deadlock.
Rozzi has created a small bipartisan group of lawmakers to draft the chamber’s operating rules, so the House can officially organize itself and begin legislating, and held a statewide listening tour to hear directly from voters. Either Rozzi or a Republican would have to vote with the other Democrats to elect a new speaker, and Rozzi told the Associated Press last month that he would not necessarily step down after Tuesday’s elections were held.
“I know how to count votes, first of all,” he said.
McClinton is the chamber’s top Democrat and was widely expected in November to take the helm as speaker. But since celebrating the day after the November election at a news conference in Philadelphia, McClinton has become more reticent about her chances, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that she “would love to be the first woman to be speaker of the House” while adding that “the answer is, I don’t know.”
McClinton grew tense when asked Tuesday evening for an update about the speakership. She said Pennsylvanians should “please stay tuned to see what the will of this body will be on the day that we return to voting session.”
Voter turnout was low Tuesday, as is typical for off-year elections. Residents told the Union Progress they had varied reasons for showing up to vote.
Some of the voters heading into the Penn Hills Public Library, where three polling places in the 32nd District were housed, said they felt there wasn’t a lot of advertising ahead of the election. Two of them voted Democratic, in the hopes that the party would pass legislation to allow recreational marijuana in the state. Cannabis is already sold medically in Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s something that a majority of people are in favor of,” said Tim Means, of Penn Hills. He noted that neighboring states have already legalized the drug for recreational use, and the commonwealth could miss out on tax revenue from the sale. “Catch up with the times, and go ahead moving forward there.”
Jeremy Carter, also of Penn Hills, is a registered Republican. But he said hopes for the passage of recreational marijuana laws, along with concerns about Republican candidate Clayton Walker’s lax stance on gun restrictions, convinced him to vote Democratic in this election.
“I wasn’t thrilled about McAndrew, but I thought he was better than Walker,” he said. “It seemed like Walker was too much on the right, and I didn’t really resonate with that. And some of the issues he ran on I just didn’t believe in.”
Peggy Kuhn, a Republican and a business owner, voted for Walker because she wanted to make a change to what she called “the regime,” although she said she didn’t know much about the candidate himself. “I’m just voting for the party,” she said.
She wanted to see legislation that would lower tax rates for corporations in the hopes of enticing more businesses to move to Pennsylvania, and wanted to see policies that would open the door to more fracking in the state.
“You can’t frack because people are afraid,” said Kuhn, of Penn Hills. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s got to come to us at some point, things that are better for us.”
At the Clairton Municipal Building on Ravensburg Boulevard, in the 35th District, election workers said the turnout had been slow by early afternoon. Three of the city’s wards vote there, and several election workers said they had expected low turnout.
Shawn Knight, of Clairton, said he came to vote because Republican candidate Don Nevills “is important to me.” He said he votes all the time and has voted for Nevills before.
Besides, he said, “a guy they [Democrats] threw in at the last minute to run, that’s just embarrassing.”
Ron Marasco said he voted because “I can’t believe what’s going on in our country.” Pressed to explain, the Clairton resident said he’s upset with “big government taking care of everything,” which he termed a turn toward socialism.
He wouldn’t disclose who he was voting for but said, “He’s not a socialist.”
McKeesport was in a somber mood Tuesday after the killing of Officer Sean Sluganski while he responded to a domestic disturbance call Monday afternoon. Flags on the city’s government buildings were at half-staff, and a large black wreath hung outside the Public Safety Building on Lysle Boulevard.
Several blocks from the wreath, few voters came to cast ballots at the Corpus Christi Parish Social Hall on Market Street, according to Iris Nelson-Hobson, the judge of elections there.
“It’s pretty slow because of it being a special election, but I don’t think people are concerned,” Nelson-Hobson said.
She decided to cast her ballot for Paul Shelly, an independent seeking write-in votes for the seat.
“I voted for him [because] I know Gergely has it hands down,” Nelson-Hobson said.
Shelly, who served on McKeesport City Council from 2005-09 before losing a bid for re-election, stopped at the First United Methodist Church on Cornell Street in the late afternoon. He had been traveling around the city in a black car covered with election slogans.
The 59-year-old, who owns a local painting business, said he was running because he “felt a void” with Davis moving on to serve as lieutenant governor. Shelly said he had worked hard, “planting about 3,000 signs” for both Davis and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, and “wanted my Mon Valley guys elected.”
Shelly added that he was running a write-in campaign because he “wanted the seat to stay in McKeesport.”
A steady stream of voters moved in and out of the church as it started to rain. Inside, minority clerk Marion Moore Hart said the turnout had been steady all day.
“Under the circumstances, we expected it,” she said. We’re hoping when people get off work, people will come in.”
The date of the special elections had been in question due to a lawsuit from Bryan Cutler, the Republican leader in the state House. He challenged the authority of McClinton, his Democratic counterpart, to schedule the three elections, and he moved to combine two of them with the upcoming May primary — the latest possible date for them to be held. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges later ruled against Cutler, saying his suit raised “nonjusticiable political questions” on which it would be improper for the court to weigh in, and left the Feb. 7 election date in place.