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Elections

With majority at stake, Pa. House Republicans sue to block Democratic-scheduled special elections

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Pennsylvania House GOP leader Bryan Cutler speaks at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania House GOP leader Bryan Cutler maintains Democrats have no power to schedule special elections.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House Republicans have filed a lawsuit to block three legislative special elections from taking place in February, potentially delaying a clear-cut majority for Democrats and allowing the GOP to maintain some measure of power into spring.

The suit, filed Friday night in Commonwealth Court by House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), argues that House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) did not have the authority to schedule the elections Wednesday after she had herself sworn in early in an unpublicized ceremony.

An accompanying request for an injunction asks for the court to “prevent a possibly unlawful special election from being held, which would cause irreparable harm in several ways, including usurping [Cutler’s] authority as Leader of the Republican Caucus of the House of Representatives and possibly Majority Leader of the House of Representatives.”

If he is majority leader, he, not McClinton, would have the authority to schedule the elections, according to the injunction — at least before Jan. 3, when the House elects its next leader.

If the courts side with Cutler, it would delay filling three empty, Democratic-leaning seats until at least March, with the May primary being the latest an election could be scheduled.

Any delay would create more time in which Republicans could claim a majority in the lower chamber, potentially complicating the opening months of Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s administration.

Democrats won 102 seats in the 203-member body on Nov. 8, which party leaders say gives them control of the chamber. However, three of those seats are vacant as of this week.

One Democratic winner, state Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny), died a month before Election Day — too close to Nov. 8 to remove his name from the ballot — while two others won races for Congress and lieutenant governor and formally resigned their state House seats Wednesday.

With DeLuca’s death, Republicans claimed that at minimum, the lower chamber was tied 101-101.

But on Wednesday, McClinton had herself sworn in and claimed the mantle of Majority Leader. Citing a 2004 precedent, she says that makes her the lower chamber’s presiding officer.

McClinton then scheduled the three special elections for February. Speaking to reporters afterward, she and fellow Democratic leaders said that the action was to ensure that the empty seats are filled sooner rather than later.

“Every voice in the Commonwealth in every district should be heard and the best way to do that is to get to the February 7 specials as quick as possible,” said House Democratic Appropriations Chair Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery).

But the move raised the ire of Republicans. Their leader in the House, Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), said in a statement that Democrats had engaged in a “paperwork insurrection” by calling the specials without a majority of seated lawmakers.

Cutler had scheduled an election for the same Feb. 7 date McClinton chose to fill deceased state Rep. Tony DeLuca’s (D., Allegheny) seat, saying the position should be filled as soon as possible. But the department rejected the date, arguing that Cutler couldn’t order an election for the upcoming session.

In a statement, House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said that the GOP suit was “the latest attempt to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters and deny tens of thousands of people in Allegheny County their right to representation in the state House.”

“The sooner special elections occur, the sooner state lawmakers can get to work,” Reigelman said in a statement.

The Department appears to have accepted McClinton’s dates. As of Friday, the agency, which oversees elections statewide, posted official calendars on its website for the three elections, including the deadline for candidates to get on the ballot and for voters to register.

Democrats must win all three seats to keep their majority. All have consistently backed Democratic candidates by double-digit margins; a Republican hasn’t represented any of the districts in about four decades.

Still, with control of the House on the line, one big money GOP-aligned group has already indicated they are weighing their options on the races.

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