By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
Updated with a response from Dan DeMarco.
Allegheny County Republicans are quietly preparing for a special election to fill State Senator Orie’s seat, PoliticsPA has learned.
Insiders believe the writing is on the wall. They predict a guilty verdict this week, and even in the unlikely event that Orie is acquitted, they believe it’s best to be prepared.
Several sources point to unflattering newspaper coverage as the defense and prosecution prepare to offer their closing arguments today in Orie’s trial.
The front runner for the GOP nomination appears to be former Congresswoman Melissa Hart, who served as Orie’s predecessor in the State Senate from 1991-2001. Hart currently chairs the Government Affairs and Relations division of Pittsburgh-based law firm Keevican Weiss Bauerle & Hirsch, according to the group’s website. Several sources close to the Allegheny Republican committee told PoliticsPA that if Hart wants the seat, the field will clear for her.
Three sources with direct knowledge of the situation confirmed this account but asked to remain anonymous, citing the the risk of political retribution from Orie or her supporters (especially if she is found not guilty).
Several corroborating accounts also indicate that, according to Hart supporters, a conversation has already taken place between Hart and Senate Pro Tem Joe Scarnati. Reportedly, the two have discussed the possibility of a Hart candidacy and the chances of having her 10 years of Senate service recognized should she win.
“I don’t think the Senator has talked to anybody for running for Senator Orie’s spot. I don’t know of any conversations along those lines at all,” said Scarnati chief of staff Drew Crompton.
“I think that issue is at best premature,” he emphasized. “If we have to cross this bridge, we’ll obviously have discussions with all sorts of people, but usually its a local issue and Senator Scarnati has always deferred to local expertise.”
PoliticsPA checked with the Senate Parliamentarian, who said matters of seniority are entirely at the discretion of Senate Leadership. The possibility of regaining her Senate seniority would immediately strengthen the case for Hart, although Crompton noted that time served is just one consideration of committee assignments in the PA Senate.
When asked about a possible candidacy, Hart, like most Allegheny Republicans, demurred.
“I’ve had a lot of people stop me in the street, but that’s really as far as it’s gone. People who know me from when I served in Congress or served in the Senate before, but nothing else really,” she said.
“I still have a State Senator at this point. Anything could happen in the court, and I wish her the best.”
Allegheny GOP Chairman Jim Roddey echoed the sentiment.
“It’s far to early to speculate,” Roddey said. “We’re all hoping that Jane Orie is acquitted, and there will be no activity about that until her trial is resolved.”
The bulk of 40th district voters live in the Republican areas of Allegheny County, but it also comprises several parts of Butler County (at a ratio of about 2:1).
If Orie is convicted, Lieutenant Governor and Senate President Jim Cawley will call a special election to be held within 60 days. The Republican (and Democratic) committees of each county will select conferees, who will in turn select a nominee.
In a process that is heavily dependent on party activists and insiders, Hart has an edge.
However, she also has a history of bad blood with the Orie clan. She strongly backed State Rep. Mike Turzai over Orie when Hart left her seat to serve in Congress. There have even been rumors of Hart supporting Orie’s political opponents across party lines.
That’s why some insiders say Hart’s main challenge, should she decide to run, may come from an Orie loyalist (though there is currently no consensus on who that could be).
Other possible candidates include Allegheny County Councilwoman Jan Rea, County Councilman Matt Drozd and State Rep. Randy Vukolvich (R-30). State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, the bombastic conservative who caught the GOP establishment off guard with a surprise run for Lieutenant Governor in 2010, could also proceed with a campaign.
Democrats stand ready to fight for the seat, but privately admit that it’s a tough one for their party to win. Governor Corbett and Majority Leader Turzai both hail from the 40th, and Orie won re-election last November by a 58 -42 percent margin despite her indictment.
Update: A spokeswoman for DeMarco said that he is leaning toward another bid for the seat, but will wait for a verdict before making a final decision.