The best — and worst of times — a tale of two Pa. transitions | Fletcher McClellan

The transition of power in the executive branch appears to be going off without a hitch. In the state House? Not so much

December 22, 2022 6:30 am

Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis, and Gov. Tom Wolf speak during a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).

State government in Pennsylvania is undergoing two transitions. One is proceeding smoothly while the other is giving the Allstate Mayhem Guy a run for his money.

Chaos reigns in the state House of Representatives, where last month’s election results handed Democrats a one-seat majority, 102-101, ending twelve years of Republican rule. 

However, three Democratic seats, all in Allegheny County, are currently vacant due to the death of Rep. Anthony DeLuca during the fall campaign and the resignation of Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, who were elected to Lieutenant Governor and the U.S. House of Representatives, respectively. 

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks to reporters beside a map of three vacant Allegheny County legislative districts that will be the subjects of special elections next year. (Capitol-Star photo by Peter Hall)
House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks to reporters beside a map of three vacant Allegheny County legislative districts that will be the subjects of special elections next year. (Capitol-Star photo by Peter Hall)

Thus, when the new state House convenes on January 3, Republicans will still be in the majority, at least until new elections in the vacant districts are held. 

Democrats want special elections held as soon as possible. House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, in line to become the first Black woman to serve as Speaker, set Feb. 7 as the date for all three vacancies. She also wants appropriate funds for the Speaker’s office, which Democrats say Republicans depleted for political purposes.

On the other hand, the former and, Republicans say, current Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, scheduled the elections of the two seats left unoccupied by resignations for May 16, the official date of the state’s primary elections. Replacement of the deceased Rep. DeLuca will take place February 7, Cutler and McClinton agree.

Both sides are taking each other to court and nobody knows how it will all play out.

Raising the stakes of this power struggle is the fate of several constitutional amendments adopted by Republicans last July, including one denying abortion rights. If Republicans are the majority in both houses (the GOP controls the state Senate, 27-22) in the new legislative session, they can adopt the proposed amendments a second time and place them on the May primary ballot.

Watching the spectacle is Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. As the current Attorney General holding office until his inauguration, Shapiro could weigh in on the elections dispute, though it is unlikely. 

As governor, Shapiro may intervene politically, since he has a strong interest in who controls the legislature and is an advocate of reproductive freedom and health

Presently, the governor-elect is preparing his agenda and appointing his staff and Cabinet. After his convincing election victory, Shapiro announced the formation of several transition teams.

One would expect minimal disruptions in a change from one Democratic administration to another. That seems to be the case so far, though Shapiro’s ties to outgoing Governor Tom Wolf are more indirect than direct. 

Since the attorney general in Pennsylvania is elected independently, the governor-elect never formally served in Wolf’s cabinet, and policy differences between the two leaders emerged during the campaign.

Removed from the anarchy in the state Capitol, Shapiro’s transition teams have nonetheless drawn criticism. For one thing, major donors to the Democrat’s campaign and some Republican operatives, including a Trump lawyer, were appointed. 

For another, each transition team mostly consists of establishment members. Just to take one example, the health policy task force includes representatives from major providers UPMC and Penn Medicine and insurers Highmark and Independence Blue Cross.

While their commitment to public service should be commended, such individuals and groups have vested interests in the status quo.

The governor-elect’s defenders reply that Shapiro is interested in cultivating consensus and getting results. Careful attention was given to making the transition teams mirror the commonwealth. Organized labor and minorities – including a historic number from the LGBTQ community  – are well represented, though women are a distinct minority.

Research on presidential transitions indicates that well-run transition processes, such as that of Richard Nixon, are no guarantee of presidential success

On the other hand, haphazard changeovers can have disastrous effects at the outset of a presidency. Bill Clinton suffered damaging political setbacks in his first 100 days, some attributed to a disorganized transition process.

Then there was the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Trump’s first transition chair, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, began a more-or-less traditional process during the fall of 2016. After the presidential election, however, Trump replaced Christie with Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. 

In turn, Trump loyalists controlled the process. One of them, political advisor Steve Bannon, advocated the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Another was Gen. Michael Flynn, whose behavior during the transition got him fired as Trump’s national security advisor three weeks into the Trump presidency. Thick briefing books by Obama aides, including one on dealing with pandemics, were ignored.

Consequently, the disheveled transition reflected the shambolic first months of the Trump presidency, including inflated attendance claims at the presidential inauguration, a notorious ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

Whatever the virtues or vices of  Shapiro’s transition process, preventing Trumpian-level disarray in the new administration – that is, doing no harm – should be its first objective.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.