Pennsylvania Democrats had a historic win in the 2022 midterm elections, delivering them control of the state government, but republicans continue to fight for relevance.
Pennsylvanian voters spoke loudly in the 2022 midterm elections, overwhelmingly backing Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. This decisive win was immediately challenged by Republican legislators desperately grasping onto any semblance of power. When all votes were counted, Pennsylvania House Democrats held a 102-101 majority, with an important caveat. Three House Democrats will not be returning to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Representatives Summer Lee (D-34) and Austin Davis (D-35) sought and won higher offices, and Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-32) passed away just before his successful re-election. Yes, you read that correctly: a dead person was re-elected to public office, and holding his seat is crucial to determining the majority. Filling these vacant seats requires holding special elections—and until that happens, House Republicans claim to hold a slim majority.
Who schedules and implements a special election? Normally, the responsibility belongs to the Speaker. However, the vacancies have swung a temporary majority to the minority party, creating a conflict of interest that threatens the will of Pennsylvanians. Representative Joanna McClinton (D-191) was sworn into office—as the PA House Democratic leader— just hours after the resignations of Lee and Davis. She then scheduled special elections for their districts on February 7th with approval from Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State, Leigh Chapman.
When Republican leader, Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-100) was subsequently sworn in, he claimed that because there was a three-Democrat delegate loss, Rep. McClinton (D-191) would not have the votes to become Speaker. House Republicans then asserted that only after she is officially selected by the Pennsylvania House as their Speaker is she able to schedule special elections, making McClinton’s actions illegal. Rep. Cutler went on to accuse Rep. McClinton of “paperwork insurrection”, and on December 9th, filed a lawsuit in a PA Commonwealth Court. Cutler requested an injunction, imploring the court to “prevent a possibly unlawful special election from being held, which could cause irreparable harm in several ways, including usurping [Cutler’s] authority as Leader of the Republican Caucus of the House of Representatives and possibly Majority Leader of the House of Representatives”.
The particular challenge of Rep. Cutler does nothing but undermine voters by attempting to delay their representation in the General Assembly in order to push Republican agenda items. During their temporary control, Republicans plan to use this special session to advance legislation which would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in May. This amendment would require voter identification, remove the constitutional right to an abortion, and limit the power of the Governor’s executive order. If Republicans use their temporary power to ignore the will of voters by furthering their agenda, they could change the constitutional foundations of Pennsylvania without considering the input of the entire constituency. All three vacant districts are Democratic strong-holds which are contiguous in Pennsylvania’s western heart, Allegheny County. Encompassing parts of the city of Pittsburgh, districts 32, 34, and 35 are diverse with nearly 30% of their population identifying as Black or African American in the 2020 Census. These unrepresented districts also have a significantly lower median household income than other surrounding districts. This ordeal is not about prematurely scheduling run-off elections, or the concern that giving Rep. McClinton scheduling power will somehow change the outcome of the special elections. Instead, it has everything to do with disenfranchising voters until the Republican Party chooses when they deserve representation. Even if the Commonwealth Court errs on the side of Republicans and Rep. Cutler is able to become Speaker and schedule special elections, Section 628 of the Pennsylvania Constitution still mandates that special elections to replace a representative in the General Assembly are to be held before the primary elections in May. In addition, it is constitutionally mandated that the Speaker must be “elected by the full membership” of the House, which can only be determined by ensuring the representation of the constituents of districts 32, 34, and 35.
No matter what way you slice it, there will likely be three more Democrats in the Pennsylvania House by spring 2023, and Republicans are faced with this grim truth just as they are coming to terms with losing their twelve-year consecutive control of the General Assembly. As their power in Pennsylvania is limited to their majority in the Senate, Republicans hope to ride the wave of Rep. Cutler’s legal efforts right into the sunset of the Red Pennsylvania that, frankly, no longer exists. Their desperate attempt to push their far-right agenda on their unsupportive Pennsylvanian constituency has ultimately proved unsuccessful, but Republicans didn’t just hand Democrats a win.
During General Assembly Elections on January 3rd, Pennsylvania Democrats narrowly scraped up the votes to secure the Speakership. With only 99 Democratic lawmakers and 101 Republicans, representative Mark Rozzi (D-126) won the speakership with 115 votes, after promising to be the “first Independent Speaker of the House in Pennsylvania.'' If swearing off partisan organization under the speaker was enough to temporarily quell Republican ambition, so be it. At the very least, Democrats have fought off yet another Republican attempt to disregard the will of voters, and Speaker Rozzi (I-126) will ensure that special elections are held in a timely manner. Once they are held, and the true will of Pennsylvanian voters is represented in the General Assembly, the House will choose their new speaker. The Speakership is expected to be held by Democratic leader, Rep. Joanna McClinton, making her the first woman, and person of color to hold the position. This historic accomplishment is reflective of a new era in Pennsylvania politics, one forged by all voters who wish to see change in their communities.
Whether it was Democrats out-strategizing Republicans, or Republicans coming to terms with their fate at the hands of voters, Democrats have managed to end a twelve-year red streak in the General Assembly. This accomplishment delivers them control of the state government, which they haven’t held in thirteen years. Rep. Cutler can accuse Rep. McClinton of“paperwork insurrection” until he’s blue in the face, but from where I’m sitting, it will just be another thing in Harrisburg turning blue.
Claire McCafferty is a first-year student at American University from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in Political Science. She is a Staff Writer and a Deputy Editor for the Agora.
Image Courtesy Barry Cruver