(This article was updated at 10:49 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, to include additional reporting.)
Democrats declared victory in special elections for three vacant state House seats in Allegheny County on Tuesday.
The wins put Democrats on pace to claim a narrow majority and control of the chamber for the first time in more than a decade, according to unofficial election results.
“When you think about the coming days, the coming weeks, the coming legislative session in Harrisburg our caucus is excited,” House Democratic Leader Joanne McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said.
Although Allegheny County had posted only mail-in ballot results as of 10 p.m. the Democratic candidates outperformed Republicans by broad margins.
Former legislative staffer and Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairperson Joe McAndrew, of Penn Hills, won the 32nd Legislative District seat held by the late Rep. Anthony DeLuca over Republican Clay Walker, a pastor and customer service provider from Verona. DeLuca died about a month before the election but was reelected anyway.
In the 34th District, lawyer and Swissvale borough council member Abigail Salisbury, won the seat formerly held by now-U.S. Rep. Summer Lee. Her Republican opponent was Robert Pagane of Wilkins Township, a former police officer and a kickboxing instructor.
Matthew Gergely, of McKeesport, won the 35th District seat Lt. Gov. Austin Davis vacated when he was elected with Gov. Josh Shapiro to lead the executive branch of state government. His opponent was Republican Don Nevills of Clairton, U.S. Navy veteran, and small business owner who ran unsuccessfully against Davis last year.
“I think what we’ve seen tonight and what Pennsylvania wants, it’s the support of Josh Shapiro’s agenda and how we’re moving forward under this governor. And so that’s my top priority … to understand what he would like to see and how we can improve,” McAndrew said.
Salisbury, asked about filling the big shoes of Lee, the state’s first Black congresswoman, said she wants to work hard on environmental issues, which was an area of focus for Lee.
“Everybody puts their own flavor on what it is that they do. So I always say, you can’t fix every single problem in an area. It’s just not possible to do everything, but you just have to chip away best as you can, little by little, and do everything you can,” Salisbury said.
While the election results give the Democrats a 2-vote majority, it’s still uncertain how the chamber will function, and who will lead it when the session resumes Feb. 27 after nearly two months of inaction.
On swearing-in day Jan. 3, neither party appeared to have the votes to elect a speaker. In an unexpected compromise, Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was elected by a bipartisan vote after promising to run the House as an independent. Rozzi, however, remains a Democrat, which drew the ire of his Republican supporters.
Democrats have indicated a desire to replace Rozzi with McClinton. That would require Rozzi, who said he plans to stay at the speaker’s rostrum, to vote for his own ouster, or for the Republican supporters he alienated to vote for McClinton, Dan Mallinson, an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg, said.
“The math is tough in terms of ousting him. It might not be if the Republicans want to sow a lot of chaos,” Mallinson said. “It’s very messy and hard to predict what happens next.”
While the House has been adjourned, Rozzi has been on a listening tour with six other Republican and Democratic lawmakers gathering input from residents on how they want the House to govern.
Mallinson said the overarching theme of the hearings has been that people want to see bipartisanship. If the partisan deadlock continues, it could further erode public confidence in state government, he said.
And with at least two Democratic representatives running for higher office this year, it’s possible the House majority could flip again later this year.
“It’s going to be a really tough legislative environment for two years, no doubt,” Mallinson.
The legislative intrigue in Harrisburg didn’t drive a strong turnout in the Allegheny County districts, which include racially and economically diverse communities in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs.
Poll workers at the Oakmont United Methodist Church said by noon Tuesday the in-person turnout was “sad,” with fewer than 50 votes cast in one of the precincts, but that there was a large number of mail-in votes yet to be counted.
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, McAndrew said he believed that all mail-in ballots would be counted and a winner evident not long after the polls closed. “While we don’t know the exact number of mail-in votes, we know that approximately 5,200 Democrats voted by mail, to 1,100 Republicans,” he said.
A last-minute get-out-the-vote effort Tuesday morning also helped bring a few more voters to the polls, McAndrew added. “
We’ve gotten several calls with people questioning that there’s an election, and we verified it with them and they said they were going to go vote,” he said.
Patty Bencivenga, 68, of Wilkinsburg in the 34th District, said when she voted at her polling place around noon she was only the 43rd voter of the day. After previously voting for Lee, Bencivenga, a retired nurse, said she voted for Salisbury because she’ll be able to keep up the work Lee started.
“First of all, she’s progressive, she does community service, and she’s pro-choice. That’s a biggie for me,” Bencivenga said.
Her mother was also a nurse and saw many women who had suffered through back-alley abortions before Roe v. Wade. “She said, if you ever saw how a woman suffers, you would never want that to happen to another woman again. And I carry that on,” Bencivenga said.
June Luciana of Oakmont said she has voted Republican in every election since she was 18 years old, and did so again on Tuesday.
As she leaned on a cane outside the Oakmont United Methodist Church, Luciana said she believed that the number of mail-in votes would decide the election, not the voters who cast their ballots in person, which didn’t sit right with her.
“I don’t believe in mail-in voting, I think unless you’re housebound you should get out and vote,” Luciana said. She admitted she didn’t think Republicans had much of a chance in the district where DeLuca held office for four decades. “I don’t think we’re going to turn it around this time,” she said.
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