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Democrats try to secure state House majority in 2023 amid dispute over special elections

Summer Lee (left) and Austin Davis (right)
Rebecca Droke / Marc Levy
Summer Lee (left) and Austin Davis (right)

Democrats in the state House say they have scheduled Feb. 7 as the date for special elections in three Allegheny County House seats — a move likely to set off a court dispute, and certain to deepen an already complicated debate about who leads the closely-divided chamber.

Meanwhile, an earlier attempt by Republicans to set the date for one of those races was rejected by the Department of State Wednesday.

Philadelphia Rep. Joanna McClinton, who leads House Democrats, announced Wednesday morning that special elections will be held for the seats of 32nd District Rep. Anthony DeLuca, who died weeks before the election this November, as well as 35th District Rep. Austin Davis, who won his House seat and his bid for lieutenant governor, and 34th District Rep. Summer Lee, who won reelection and a race for Congress simultaneously.

That would require Davis and Lee to resign from the state House today, as both of them did this morning.

“To ensure every Pennsylvanian has representation and to restore the state House to its full complement as quickly as possible, I set the special elections for early February,” said McClinton in a Wednesday-morning statement.

McClinton said she scheduled the races after being sworn in as the state House majority leader, a role that would put her in line to be the next House speaker.

She based her claim to that title on the fact that Democrats won 102 of 203 House seats up for grabs in November. In a call with reporters last week, McClinton maintained that, “The majority party is determined based upon the number of elections won, not the number of members who are sworn in.”

And she criticized outgoing Republican Speaker Bryan Cutler for having set the Feb. 7 date for DeLuca’s seat at the end of last month, just before this year’s legislative session ended.

But Republicans objected that DeLuca’s death meant that the two parties both were tied with 101 members each, and neither had a majority. Cutler accused McClinton of engineering "a paperwork insurrection." And that was before Lee and Davis’ resignations, which will mean Democrats begin next year’s legislative session with 99 members — two fewer than the GOP’s 101.

In a statement today, Cutler said McClinton had herself sworn in as majority leader “without notice and in complete secret.” He called the move an “illegitimate power grab” and said it proved that Democrats’ “last two years of rhetoric on respect for institutions has been nothing but crocodile tears.”

It is not clear what Republicans will do about it: A spokesperson merely said that all options were on the table, though Democrats privately say they expect a legal challenge.

Meanwhile, Cutler's own attempt to set a date for the DeLuca special election was rejected by acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman Wednesday. In a two-page letter, Chapman argued that Cutler had slated the election too soon: DeLuca's seat did not become vacant until the start of the new legislative session, she wrote, which began after Cutler's tenure as Speaker came to an end.

"That document was premature," Chapman wrote.

That would leave the date of the special elections in limbo, with a date chosen by Republicans tossed out by the state's top election officer, and a date chosen by Democrats susceptible to legal challenge.

Ironically, the date of the special elections themselves is the one thing that hasn't been in dispute. While McClinton objected to Cutler choosing the Feb. 7 date for the DeLuca seat himself, she used the same date for all three races.

In fact, today’s resignations of Davis and Lee were necessary to keep to that calendar: State law requires at least 60 days between the scheduling of an election and the event itself.

Still, the tight timeframe will present a challenge even to veteran politicos.

Even if all three specials take place on Feb. 7, Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Sam Hens-Greco says, "We'll make it happen. I'm confident about that." The committee has been preparing for the specials since just after the election, and has been scoping out venues for party leaders to meet and choose their nominees. Still, he said, "Anytime you do something like this with this rate of speed, it's hard for anyone involved — the candidates, the public. It's really about the ability of candidates to communicate that is the harder task."

Hens-Greco said he can't remember facing the possibility of having so many races in such a compressed timetable. "But what's more unusual is the impact this will have. Allegheny County is going to be deciding who gets to be in charge of the House. We're swinging the balance of power in a very short time."

All three of the county’s House vacancies are in heavily Democratic districts, and the assumption is that Democrats should prevail in a special election, thereby reasserting their hold on the House majority. But on Wednesday morning there was already some grousing in Democratic quarters Wednesday morning about the scramble to compete in three separate districts on the same day, and to find nominees for them in time.

The special election process to replace DeLuca is well underway, with Democrats set to pick their nominee this coming weekend, and Republicans the weekend after. But the picture in Lee and Davis’ districts is less settled.

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Several candidates have already stepped forward to vie for the Lee seat. They include Swissvale attorney Abigail Salisbury, who challenged Lee for the seat during this year’s primary, and Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood borough council member who briefly ran for the Congress seat that Lee won this fall. Two Wilkinsburg residents, environmental justice advocate NaTisha Washington and school board member Ashley Comans, have also said they would run.

A number of names have circulated in the 35th race. Though it is not clear who will actually run, one contender widely expected to enter the race is Matt Gergely, who has a long history of working for the city of McKeesport, whose voters dominate the district. Gergely’s brother Marc held the seat before Davis.

In the meantime, McClinton acknowledged to reporters last week that the Democratic majority was “rather precarious” and that Democrats were “hoping to work across the aisle” to settle the question of who would take the Speaker’s gavel on January 3.

That seemed unlikely Wednesday. “Instead of working cooperatively to navigate the unique circumstances before us,” Cutler’s statement read, “House Democrats have instead set a terrible precedent for what to expect over the next two years and beyond.”

Editor's note: This story will be updated.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.