State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

In the Legislature, GOP holding steady, as some rock the boat

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 15, 2014 9:52 AM


The Democratic candidates running to take on Governor Tom Corbett have been dominating news coverage this election year. But many of the lawmakers who must work with the governor to pass legislation are also on the ballot this year -- all the state House seats and half the state Senate districts are up for grabs.

Only about half of the House members and a third of the Senate have even token opposition.

This year's election season did start with a bang as the Senate's majority party reckoned with a newcomer who vowed to shake up the place: Scott Wagner, who hit the ground running after winning a special election in March.

"You got to understand, I just got parachuted in here," said Wagner after being sworn in, "I have been parachuted in. I have a lot to learn."

Wagner, the Legislature's newest member, arrived as an outsider in the Senate Republican caucus after winning the election to finish out the term of a GOP senator who resigned for another job.

When it comes to legislative politics, Wagner is the break-out story of the year, so far. The gruff York County businessman was not the chosen one for his party. But he bucked the county's party elders and the governor and won the seat as a write-in candidate - despite the TV attack ads paid for by the Senate Republicans' campaign committee.

And is Wagner bitter?

"Bottom line is we beat 'em," Wagner said. "Once you stab your opponent in the neck and they bleed to death, you know, that's -- you don't keep stabbing them."

With Tuesday's primary nearly here, Wagner's up for election again. This time, he'll be competing to keep his seat for the next legislative term starting in 2015. After his showing in the special election, he's expected to win easily.

But what remains to be seen is how a trucking and trash hauling company executive who campaigned against career politicians and the "big PA Political Machine" will fare in the rather staid environment of the state Senate.

"You have to come in diplomatically," he said. "I'm not coming into the Capitol with grenades strapped all over my vest... you know, my staff is going to spend a lot of time briefing me on the lay of the land up here."

All House members are up for election in Tuesday's primary, but nearly half are unopposed. The 203-seat state House is likely to remain firmly in GOP control. The party has 111 seats; while the Democrats number 92.

15 of the 50 Senate seats are up for grabs. Republicans control the chamber just 27 to 23. Democrats are holding out hope that they could pick up a couple seats and keep the majority party on edge.

What's also unique about this election year is that new district boundaries will be taking effect. This happens every 10 years to reflect population shifts based on Census data.

As a result, millions of Pennsylvania voters will find themselves in new districts. And it turns out, some found out from incumbent lawmakers who sent newsletters, birthday messages, and robocalls to voters who outside those lawmakers' current district limits, but who are within the new district boundaries just about to take effect. And the money being used to do all that comes from the Legislature - which is to say, your Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars.

"Who knows how much money's involved here? We don't know," said Gene Stilp, a sort of professional activist whose obsession is legislative malfeasance. He's also a candidate for the House, running as a Democrat.

The state Ethics Commission has given lawmakers the green light for the outreach to potential new constituents. But if you ask Stilp, it shouldn't be allowed on the taxpayer's dime.

"They're campaigning with this money," Stilp said. "People are sitting in jail in the Bonusgate cases right now for using taxpayer money to campaign. This is the same thing."

Bonusgate, of course, is the catch-all term used for the rash of cases from 2007 through 2012 involving lawmakers charged - and in some cases, convicted - of using legislative resources for political purposes.

It hasn't been a banner year for public integrity. Among Philadelphia's legislative delegation, two lawmakers, State Senator Leanna Washington and State Representative J.P. Miranda, are seeking re-election while facing criminal corruption charges. Plus, four other state representatives were named in news accounts as having taken cash in a sting operation run by the State Attorney General's office. Only one of the four faces an opponent in Tuesday's primary.

WHYY's Dave Davies contributed to this report.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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