(Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races have gained national attention this cycle. But voters casting their ballots in the Nov. 8 general election are electing more than their next federal representative and governor.
Every seat in the state House of Representatives — 203 — and half of the Senate — 25 — are up for election this year, positions that help determine what becomes law in Pennsylvania, where Republicans have maintained control of both chambers since 2011.
The GOP currently holds 28 seats in the Senate and 113 in the House, meaning that Republicans largely control what legislation sees a vote and makes its way to the governor’s desk. With Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — who has exercised his veto pen on GOP bills — leaving office in January 2023 and two drastically different candidates vying to replace him, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are seeking power in the Legislature.
Republicans could win a veto-proof majority by adding five seats to their majority in the Senate but face a steeper challenge in the lower chamber, which requires at least 135 Republican members. Democrats — stressing legislative authority over abortion access since Roe’s reversal — see the upcoming election as a chance to flip some seats and gain some power.
Regardless of political power, the General Assembly will look different next year as dozens of lawmakers retire or look to switch chambers, some of whom are running in newly redrawn districts.
Trevor Southerland, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said redistricting and retirements create opportunities for flipping seats. There are three entirely new districts where no incumbent was included and many more where the incumbent is retiring or running for higher office.
“Pennsylvania voters, a lot of the time, give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt. When it [a seat] comes open, it goes to the party that it naturally should,” Southerland said.
Here’s a look at the legislative races the Capital-Star is watching this election cycle:
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
33rd Legislative District: Ted Tomson v. Mandy Steele
Republican Ted Tomson and Democrat Mandy Steele are running for the open seat in the 33rd District, which includes the Pittsburgh suburbs along the west shore of the Allegheny River. They range from the most affluent communities in Allegheny County to hardscrabble former steel towns.
Steele, a Fox Chapel Borough Council member, said she believes the economic diversity makes the 33rd a bellwether race for issues that should appeal to progressives and working people who want a better future for themselves and their families.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, with hundreds of billions in federal money for energy security, has implications for the redevelopment of the district’s riverfront towns.
“If we can win in these steel towns on a clean energy platform, that is a tremendous story of success,” Steele told the Capital-Star.
Steele said she’s confident her message that clean energy and confronting climate change resonate with voters who have seen their towns abandoned by coal and steel companies. In contrast, Tomson advocates support for the coal, oil, and gas industries in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“When I’m knocking the independent doors, when I’m knocking the Republican doors, I’m hearing a lot of excitement,” Steele said. “People don’t want coal. Coal miners don’t even want coal.”
Tomson didn’t respond to a message left at his business.
Steele said she appreciates the role of hunting in American culture and the preservation of natural lands and believes Second Amendment rights should be protected. She said she would work to pass legislation to require background checks for all gun purchases and licensing for firearms owners.
“I put four kids on the bus every morning to go to public schools and feel the fear in my heart that so many of us do at this point. And the toll that gun violence has taken on our impoverished communities is unacceptable,” Steele said.
Tomson said on his campaign website that he would also prioritize support for first responders, growing the economy by finding ways for the government to help small businesses and pursuing public-private partnerships to rebuild infrastructure, maintaining election integrity, continuing the fight to stem the opioid epidemic, and developing broadband internet access for rural communities.
Tomson recently told KDKA-TV news that he opposes abortion but supports exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Steele’s campaign noted that a pre-primary voter guide published by the anti-abortion organization Life PAC did not list Tomson among the candidates who supported exceptions.
30th Legislative District: Cynthia R. Kirk vs. Arvind Venkat
Created from parts of three legislative districts in the Pittsburgh suburbs, this is another competitive seat evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. The current lawmaker Rep. Lori Mizgorski, R-Allegheny, was drawn out of her 30th District seat and is running for state Senate.
Republican Cynthia R. Kirk, of McCandless, stepped down from her seat on the Allegheny County Council, where she was serving her second term, to run the state House
A nurse administrator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Kirk said she will work to keep taxes low and push back against the progressive agenda and protect constitutional rights. She also said she supports law enforcement and Second Amendment rights.
Kirk describes herself as “pro-life” but said she believes abortions should be “safe and rare,” and that she supports the current Pennsylvania law, including exceptions for the health and safety of the mother and child and for victims of rape and incest.
Improving access to health care would be a priority Kirk said, emphasizing the need for better mental health care.
Dr. Arvind Venkat emphasizes his experiences as an emergency room physician during the pandemic in his policy statements on issues from abortion to gun violence.
Venkat said he would work to protect the reproductive health and liberty of Pennsylvania women. Venkat also said he believes that it is possible to respect Second Amendment rights while passing legislation to reduce gun violence and save lives.
Venkat said climate change is a real issue that requires serious solutions in the form of protections for clean air, water, open space, and improved storm and floodwater management. Venkat also recognizes the need for infrastructure improvement in Allegheny County and said he would work to bring federal funding to his district to repair roads, bridges, and sewer systems, improving quality of life and creating new construction jobs.
82nd Legislative District: Justin Behrens vs. Paul Takac Jr.
Democratic voters have a slight majority in this newly created central Pennsylvania district that covers part of Centre County including part of State College.
Behrens said education, the economy, and infrastructure are his primary issues, and he puts forth a conservative platform for each.
Behrens said he would support an education voucher program to give parents more control over their children’s education, work to revitalize Pennsylvania’s agricultural industries and develop energy resources to create new blue-collar jobs, and work to improve highways and rural broadband access.
Takac said education is one of his priorities. He said he would work to revamp the state’s fair-funding formula to distribute public education funding more equitably, regulate charter schools to meet public education standards, and provide funding for universal preschool and childcare programs. Takac also said he would work to improve access to higher education and trade schools.
Takac said climate change requires immediate action and shifting Pennsylvania to a renewable energy economy is a crucial step that would also provide job security for many residents through the creation of clean-energy industries and infrastructure.
Takac also said he believes that reproductive rights are human rights and that he would vote to make the right to abortion access part of Pennsylvania law.
129th Legislative District: Barry Llewellyn vs. Johanny Cepeda-Freyitz
Republican Barry Llewellyn will face Reading City Council President Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, a Democrat, in the redrawn 129th District, which includes Reading and its southwestern suburbs. The district was strongly Republican before the redistricting. Now, it has a 53 percent to 31 percent majority of Democrats. It is an open seat because Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, is retiring.
Llewellyn, a retired teacher, said he would work to improve transparency in education, giving parents access to the curricula, books, and lessons used in their children’s classes. He would also advocate for a school voucher program to allow parents to move their children out of failing schools.
A former swimming and diving coach, Llewellyn said he also supports barring transgender girls and women from competing in girls’ and women’s sports.
Llewellyn said he supports developing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas resources to provide lower-cost energy and to end dependence on foreign energy sources.
He also lists Second Amendment rights, police funding, and respect for life from conception to natural death among his policies.
Cepeda-Freyitz owns a Latino restaurant in Reading. Cepeda-Freyitz lists her priorities as strengthening communities through access to quality education, reforming the property tax system to help the elderly, and increasing the minimum wage to improve the quality of life for working families.
Cepeda-Freyitz said she will also work to protect the right to vote by mail, improve environmental conditions by providing education for residents and incentives for businesses, and pursue gun safety legislation to end gun violence.
142nd Legislative District: Joseph Hogan vs. Mark Moffa
Republican Joe Hogan faces Democrat Mark Moffa in the 142nd District in lower Bucks County, a one-time Republican stronghold that, like other suburban Philadelphia counties, has seen a shift since the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections.
Held since 2009 by Republican state Rep. Frank Farry, who is running for state Senate, the newly redrawn district is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters.
Hogan, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, and project director for the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority, touts “good jobs, great schools, and better neighborhoods,” as his agenda, but provides no detail of his policy positions on his campaign website. He told the Delaware Valley Journal he “does not agree with towing the party line on every issue” but strives for consistent leadership.
Moffa was a member of Penndel Borough Council and made an unsuccessful bid for mayor last year. He is an associate publisher at a small magazine publishing company.
Moffa said he would fight against the effort to amend Pennsylvania’s Constitution to take away the right to abortion. Raised by a single mother, Moffa said he would work to pass legislation improving access to health care, nutritional assistance, and childcare.
Moffa said he will advocate for legislative reform to change rules that contribute to partisan gridlock by requiring committees to hold votes on bills with bipartisan support and requiring both chambers to hold votes on bills that are passed out of committee.
6th Senate District: Frank Farry vs. Ann Marie Mitchell
Democrat Ann Marie Mitchell, a one-time state House candidate, is running against current state Rep. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican, to fill the seat currently held by retiring state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson.
Tomlinson is retiring after serving his seventh term in the Senate. He also served in the House from 1991 to 1994.
Farry is looking to move to the Senate in a district with a slight Democratic lean following the newly redrawn maps. First elected to the House in 2008, Farry previously served as a volunteer firefighter and chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Company. He also worked as assistant township manager for Middletown Township.
An attorney, Mitchell said her priorities are education, reproductive health care, affordable health care, mental health awareness, opioid recovery, community safety, and legislative process improvement.
She supports expanding voting access, including pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, expanding early voting sites and ballot drop boxes, pre-canvassing, establishing an independent commission for future redistricting, and blocking voter identification proposals.
16th Senate District: Jarrett Coleman vs. Mark Pinsley
Jarrett Coleman, a Republican, faces Mark Pinsley, a Democrat, this fall, vying to fill the seat currently held by Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who lost his bid for re-election after serving in the Legislature for nearly three decades.
First elected to public office in 1994, Browne served in the House for 10 years. He moved to the Senate after a special election in 2005. He chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee — playing a prominent role in annual state budget development — since 2014.
Coleman, who calls himself a “conservative reformer,” is an airline pilot and was elected as a Parkland School Board member in November. His school board campaign criticized the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has railed against school administration, saying they introduced critical race theory into the district by disguising it as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program.
Pinsley, the current Lehigh County controller, lost to Browne in 2018. Before being elected controller, Pinsley served as a South Whitehall Township commissioner.
He faced backlash earlier this year after testifying before the Legislative Reapportionment Commission and said Republicans wanted to create a “ghetto” by grouping Allentown and Bethlehem together. Pinsley, however, said the remarks were taken out of context.
Pinsley has campaigned on reducing property taxes, business development that allows for growth but protects communities, and increasing local transportation for senior citizens.
38th Senate District: Lindsey Williams vs. Lori Mizgorski
Williams won her first election by roughly 500 votes in 2018, replacing former GOP Sen. Randy Vulakovich.
She is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee and an advocate for government transparency — posting all of her monthly legislative expenses online before it was a chamber-wide initiative. Williams also introduced legislation providing no-cost breakfast and lunches in K-12 schools and addressing educator staffing shortages.
Mizgorski, who has served in the House since 2019, was drawn out of her district with the most recent maps. Before her tenure as a state representative, she served as a Shaler Township supervisor.
Her campaign website lists job and workforce readiness, education and school safety, health care, transportation, and liveable communities as core issues.
After the 2020 election, Mizgorski supported an attempt to audit the results before they were certified by the Department of State. In July, she opposed an amendment to the state budget that would have stopped tuition funding for the University of Pittsburgh because of its medical research with fetal tissue.
40th Senate District: Rosemary Brown vs. Jennifer Shukaitis
The candidates are vying to fill the seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Mario Scavello, who served more than a decade in the House and is retiring after seven years in the Senate.
First elected to the House in 2010, Brown has touted her efforts to bring awareness to Lyme Disease and testing for tick-borne illnesses and cap emergency prescribing of opioids.
Earlier this year, she voted in favor of a five-pronged constitutional amendment package that — if approved by voters — would amend the state’s governing document to state that there is “no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.”
Shukaitis, the granddaughter of Monroe County Commission Chairperson Nancy Shukaitis, supports abortion access, calling it health care on her campaign website. If elected to the Senate, she said she will develop policies that “prioritize people over corporate profits,” adding that she supports reducing prescription drug prices and expanding mental health treatment.
Shukaitis wants Pennsylvania to move away from standardized testing in schools, expand vocational training, and teach students how to manage personal finances.
44th Senate District: Katie Muth vs. Jessica Florio
Muth, who won election to the Senate in 2018, is a native of western Pennsylvania. A vocal member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Muth has gone against both sides of the aisle, working to hold polluters accountable and advocating for more sustainable energy policies.
She supports state-sponsored health care for all, rebate programs to reduce property taxes, and fair public school funding.
Her campaign has been a focus for the GOP this year as it hopes to flip the seat representing a Republican-majority district.
In addition to teaching, Florio serves as Honey Brook Borough Council president and chairs the Route 322 Transportation Committee. She previously served as the Honey Brook Community Library Board of Trustees president.
Florio’s campaign website lists education, public safety, economic development, and first responders as key issues.
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