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A slugfest in Harrisburg as Democrats and Republicans fight over Pennsylvania state House control

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

In Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, the U.S.Supreme Court heard the case of Moore v. Harper, in which Republican state legislators want the right to draw up maps for Congressional districts without threat of reversal from state courts. Pennsylvania Republicans contributed a friend-of-the-court brief that argued such decisions should be left to legislators, who the brief contends are better positioned to offer “a deliberative and open legislative process, which involves negotiations [and] compromise … that reflects the will of their constituents.”

One wonders how much attention those Pennsylvania legislators pay to Pennsylvania’s actual legislative process: On the very day Moore v. Harper was being argued, the state House was providing what could be Exhibit A for how the sausage actually gets made in Harrisburg.

Democrats won 102 of the 203 state House races this past November. But the death of Penn Hills Democrat Anthony DeLuca this fall means both parties have 101 legislators in their caucus. As noted here last week, that created a dispute about who actually can be said to lead the chamber — and thus who had the right to call for a special election to replace DeLuca. Outgoing House Speaker Bryan Cutler selected Feb. 7, but House Democratic leader Joanna McClinton said the decision belonged to Democrats.

“The result may not be chaos,” I predicted of the dispute last week. And lo! What would I not give for the naive optimism, the sunny innocence of that bygone era! Because on Wednesday, Democrats announced two more vacancies with the resignations of Allegheny County House members Austin Davis and Summer Lee.

Both are headed for bigger things: Davis will become the lieutenant governor next month, whereas Lee is headed to Congress. But they leave behind a Democratic caucus with 99 active members to the GOP’s 101. Yet McClinton maintains that she remains majority leader because voters backed more Democrats than Republicans this fall. In that capacity, she set the Feb. 7 date for all three special elections. That very same morning, the acting secretary of the Commonwealth rejected Cutler’s move to use the same date to replace DeLuca.

A Republican lawsuit in the state’s Commonwealth Court is widely expected. Ironically, both parties seem to agree that Feb. 7 would be a good date … but neither party thinks the other has the right to set it. It’s a case of disagreeing to agree. Or something.

Whatever happens on the legal front, the resignations Wednesday and McClinton’s move to schedule special elections stunned everyone I spoke to yesterday, including Democrats. Many expected Davis and Lee to stick it out through the swearing-in ceremony. And not every Democrat is sure this is such a great idea: It’s hard to see how shrinking your caucus better positions you to argue that you’re in the majority.

But there’s also a perception that Democrats had no good choices in the absence of any sort of truce or power-sharing agreement with Republicans. Perhaps such an arrangement was never all that likely given an increasingly pugnacious GOP caucus, and its perception that a blue-friendly redistricting process earlier this year is the only reason Democrats can even hope to capture the House.

If a slugfest is coming, some Democrats reason, it may as well happen now.

But for now, it’s not at all clear that any special elections will happen on Feb. 7. That wouldn’t hurt the feelings of at least one aging, overworked reporter. But any delay will leave voters in those House districts without representation. And some politicos say the confusion may worsen headaches inevitable in a special election process.

When a politician such as DeLuca represents an area for decades — and leaves no obvious successor — you get large fields of candidates. And long-simmering tensions have a way of causing problems, especially in the comparatively insular community of party committeepeople who will actually choose the nominee.

That’s ordinarily not a problem in a place like House District 32, where top-of-the-ballot candidates Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman won by margins of two-to-one in November. But with control of the House at stake, a tight special-election timetable and the possibility of a practiced Republican like Carrie Lewis DelRosso taking the field with some money behind her, Democrats can’t take anything for granted.

DelRosso herself was redistricted out of a House seat she won in 2020. The Democrat she beat, Frank Dermody, preceded McClinton as their party’s leader. Someday it may be fun to entertain hypothetical questions about how things would have played out if the Democratic leader lived next door to — rather than across the state from — the districts that will decide control of the House.

But that’s an academic question compared to what’s at stake. And if Republicans get the Supreme Court to vest more power in the legislature’s hands down the road, the stakes may grow even larger.

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.