Pennsylvania’s March 18th special election to fill the 28th district senate seat vacated by the resignation of Senator Mike Waugh only lacked normalcy. Everything about it was wrapped in controversy, suspicion, confusion, arrogance, and incompetence, ultimately producing a profoundly surprising historic outcome, as Tea Party outsider and Republican unnominated, Scott Wagner, won an unprecedented write-in victory helped, in no small way, by public disgust over vicious attack ads directed at him by the GOP establishment. Added to this was the possibility, due to improper selection of eligible precincts, the election could be contested as invalid, leaving uncertainty and chaos in its wake.
Avoiding possible chaos, hearing no challenges, Scott Wagner will be sworn in Wednesday April 2, as the first ever Pennsylvania legislator elected by write-in. Not only that, his margin of victory was so huge that the York County GOP Committee-picked nominee, sitting House member Rep Ron Miller, subsequently dropped out of the May 20 primary, which will select candidates for a new full state Senate term beginning 2015, effectively ending his 16 year career in the legislature.
The issue of the election’s validity was raised due to its being held in a time of redistricting transition, and the revelation that another special election for a vacant state House seat had been held only seven weeks prior, on January 28th, set up using existing boundaries, whereas the March 18th Senate election was set up using the adopted, but yet to take effect, new district boundaries, each to fill vacant terms expiring November 30, 2014.
This suggested nearly 50,000 citizens were being disenfranchised, as another nearly 36.000 had been improperly enfranchised, becoming a daily topic of discussion by local talk show host Gary Sutton on WSBA radio. Only the size of Wagner’s margin of victory, itself driven by public reaction against the vile attack ads from his own party, rendered validity moot, as his nearly doubling the vote totals of each of his two opponents left no room for argument that, even had the election been set up properly, the outcome could possibly have been different.
Questions remain as to suspicions of collusion raised by Senator Waugh’s resignation, his constitutionally questionable appointment as executive director of the Farm Show Expo, run by a Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, by Governor Corbett, and Lt Governor Cawley’s issuance of the writ for the special election, all within hours.
The smell and speculation of conspiracy was aided by Waugh’s August 9, 2013 announcement he would not seek reelection, Scott Wagner’s announcement of intent to run shortly after, and known differences between Wagner and GOP party insiders. Was this a plot to keep Wagner out?
Setting the special election March 18th with a primary election only 9 weeks ahead added more fuel to the fire, as this would result in additional cost to the taxpayer estimated to exceed $200,000 as opposed to holding the special election in conjunction with the May 20 primary. This brought speculation also that, because there is no primary for a special election, and the county party committees would select the nominees, outsider Scott Wagner would have to face an incumbent in the May primary, to lessen his chance of success there.
With some in the public from both parties upset over an unnecessary $200,000+ expense, the York County GOP committee unwittingly, by selecting any sitting house member at the time, did something that could have doubled the expense, had their chosen nominee won. Had Rep Ron Miller won the election, yet another special election to fill his vacant seat would not have been an option, in spite of early indications from local GOP officials that it would.
The election code is clear in stating that, on the occurrence of a vacancy, the presiding officer shall within 10 days issue a writ for a special election at least 60 days forward, unless the vacancy occurs within 7 months before the expiration of a term, in which situation there is no special unless the presiding officer makes the case for one. Waiting for the May 20 primary, therefore also, would have ended the ugly possibility of $400,000+ in two special elections.
It is worth noting here that some also complained about the special election candidate nomination process, being hand picked by the county committees. Often they were the same people also upset by the $200,000 extra expense, by scheduling the election apart from a primary only 7 weeks hence. Here, though, is where it cannot be both ways. Either accept the committee selection process as prescribed in the code, or accept imposition of an added expense of holding a primary for the special. Those are the choices.
As a final thought on the boundaries used for the 28th district senate special election being incorrect, as radio show host Sutton pressed the validity issue, he reported his repeated attempts to obtain answers of clarity from the Lt Governor’s office, the Department of State, and the local Board of Elections all resulted in unreturned calls, not what would be expected of those capable of and anxious to defend their actions.
Then also, there is one curious post election observation. Sometime between the election and Saturday March 22, all the “Find My Legislator” information at the General Assembly website was changed to the new district boundaries for Senators but not members of the House. In my case, where Newberry Twp, York County will be moving from Senator Teplitz-15th to Senator Folmer-48th the website now tells me Senator Folmer is my Senator presently. Questioning Senator Teplitz, who periodically has staff available in the Newberry Twp building, he confirmed that nothing has changed. Until the end of November his staff will still be there the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month as always. So it seems a mistake, luckily complimented by a decisive outcome aided by arrogance in political advertising, that saved a potential challenge of an election, is now being smoothed over with a lie. Oh, my!
While the historic but flawed Senate 28th special election of 2014 suggests clarification of the code to guide in times of redistricting transition in the future, the next time it can happen is beyond current sight. With no expectation of political gain by addressing it now, it is likely the same issues of confusion will arise again, when memory of this experience will long have been forgotten.
Note: This article shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 4/3/14