Democrats sweep special elections, affirming first Pa. House majority in 12 years

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Democrats have swept three Allegheny County special elections, cementing their one-vote majority in the Pennsylvania state House and ending a two-month debate over which party controls the chamber.

With the wins, Democrats can now set the state House agenda for the first time since 2010 and will enjoy extra leverage in coming budget talks over how to spend more than $40 billion in projected state revenue. The party also will be able to push policy priorities like a minimum wage hike or LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

Just after 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Associated Press called all three races for the Democratic candidates — Joe McAndrew in the 32nd House District, Abigail Salisbury in the 34th, and Matt Gergely in the 35th. Once they are sworn in later this month, the trio will officially give the Democrats 102 votes in the 203-member state House.

“Our caucus has never been more unified,” state House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said at a news conference Tuesday in Pittsburgh. “We look forward to the privilege of leading and serving in every corner of this Commonwealth.”

It is unclear, however, if the wins will be enough for McClinton to claim the speaker’s gavel, which is currently held by state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks). He was elected in a deal that Republicans engineered in a last-ditch effort to avoid entering the minority.

But Rozzi’s deal has not panned out as Republicans planned, and the GOP caucus, most of whom are accustomed to holding the levers of power, now face an adjustment to life in the legislative minority.

“When you’re in the majority, you make those calls. You decide when a committee meeting is happening, you can decide what bills are running and decide what bills to get amended, which ones get to the floor,” said state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), who previously served as GOP floor leader. “It’s not as much fun in the passenger seat.”

Republicans briefly held a functional majority at the start of this year’s legislative session thanks to the three vacancies in seats Democrats had won. But while many conservatives pressed party leaders to take advantage of that temporary advantage and pass at least two far-reaching constitutional amendments, internal divisions stopped the GOP from capitalizing.

Instead, Republican leadership backed Rozzi to take the gavel on swearing-in day. Republicans believed Rozzi would switch parties to become a registered independent as part of the GOP-engineered deal, which would have left the chamber at a tie.

However, Rozzi has not dropped his Democratic registration.

In January, he recessed the chamber indefinitely when no path emerged to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil suits against their perpetrators and those who shielded them. Republicans insisted on tying that bill with their own proposals to expand voter ID and make it easier for the legislature to override regulations, which Rozzi considered a no-go.

While some Democrats have talked about replacing Rozzi with McClinton as head of the chamber, such a maneuver would be unlikely without either Rozzi’s consent or the backing of Republicans.

Asked Tuesday night, McClinton only said to “please stay tuned to see what the will of this body will be on the date that we return to the voting session.”

Rozzi, meanwhile, has said he intends to remain speaker. He and Democrats have appeared to be on speaking terms — top Democratic leaders and staff repeatedly visited his office in the past few weeks.

The state House now needs rules to dictate how bills are introduced, amended, and voted on. And unlike in previous years, there will be competing options.

First, the chamber awaits the results of a tour Rozzi organized with three Republicans and three Democrats to hear the general public’s opinions on the chamber’s internal operating rules.

Testifiers at four stops across the state told the panel they want more bipartisan bills and less absolute power in the hands of top legislators. Senior Democrats, who have waited years to regain that power, might not grant that wish.

“I don’t believe that we ought to be looking at a unilateral disarmament,” state Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) previously told Spotlight PA. “I don’t think my Republican colleagues would ever have given us that kind of benefit.”

Rozzi has not announced a timeline for the release of the rules his group has been working on. State House Republicans have released their own rules package; state House Democrats have not, but are working on their own proposal behind closed doors.

While the caucus awaits action from Rozzi’s work group, “our leaders continue to discuss potential rules changes and meet with stakeholders to ensure that when the House reconvenes later this month, we’re prepared to enact fair rules to govern the chamber,” state House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said in an email.

Rules could be decided as soon as Feb. 21, the state House’s next scheduled session day (Rozzi scheduled 10 weeks of session just minutes after Democrats claimed victory in the races).  Tuesday’s winners can be sworn in as soon as their results are certified.

The state Senate remains in Republican hands, and GOP leaders there have indicated they won’t hesitate to block proposals they disagree with.

“We will work across the aisle when necessary to advance issues important in this commonwealth,” said state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) at an introductory news conference last year. “But we will also defend the principles and beliefs of those who have elected us to serve them here in the state Senate.”

Featured image: Jose F. Moreno / Philadelphia Inquirer

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