Elections at the local level changed the makeup of various counties throughout the state as Pennsylvania gears up for the pivotal 2020 presidential election. Here’s the annual Ups & Downs.
Suburban GOP. Eastern PA continued to creep away from Republicans. Democrats made significant gains in each of the collar counties plus flipped seats in the Lehigh Valley. Delaware County is the Democrats biggest victory in 2019 in Pennsylvania by wiping out every Republican on the countywide council and electing a Democratic District Attorney for the first time ever. In Chester County, which was the lone county in the state that flipped from supporting Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 to Sec. Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democrats took a majority on the commissioner board and elected a Democrat as District Attorney for the first time in county history. Democrats also took the majority on the commissioner board for the first time in decades in Bucks County as well, which appears to remain the most GOP friendly of the collar counties moving forward. All four open county commissioner spots in Lehigh County went blue, while also besting two GOP incumbents. Oh, and Democrats took the majority on the commissioner board in Monroe County.
SDCC. You win one, you lose one. Democrats made significant gains in 2018 in the state Senate, flipping a total of 5 seats to bring them within striking distance to regaining a majority in 2020, but Democrats attempting to achieve this goal experienced some highs and lows in 2019. In April, Democrats successfully flipped the 37th District in Allegheny County by electing Pam Iovino over Allegheny County GOP Chair Raja. The swing seat, previously represented by Guy Reschenthalter (R-Allegheny), became open after he resigned when he was sworn into U.S. Congress. Prior to Reschenthaler’s special election victory in 2015, Democrat Matt Smith represented the district for three years. Iovino’s victory cut the GOP lead in the state Senate and Democrats began to see the goal of flipping the chamber as a reality, but those hopes may have gone away in November when state Sen. John Yudichak (I-Luzerne) changed his party registration from Democrat to Independent. Yudichak also declared his plans to caucus with Republicans after the decision. For Democrats to regain a majority in the state Senate, they will need to hold onto each district they represent, while flipping 4 GOP held seats.
Election Reform. A number of efforts aimed at reforming the state’s election process were given the greenlight in Pennsylvania in 2019. In late October, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a voting reform bill into law that he touts as the “most significant to Pennsylvania’s elections in more than 80 years.” The bipartisan legislation signed into law includes no excuse mail-in voting, a 50-day mail-in voting period, permanent mail-in and absentee ballot list, 15 more days to register to vote, and extended mail-in and absentee submission deadlines, while also eliminating straight party voting. All seven counties in the state have agreed to purchase new paper-trail voting systems plus the straight-party ballot option was eliminated.
Coal Country Dems. Although Democrats made gains in the east, Republicans rose in the west. Armstrong, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties, which have steadily trended red, all voted to give the Republican Party the majority in their county commissioner races. In Greene County, in which Democrats have dominated countywide seats for decades, also voted for a Republican District Attorney. The party switch of Sen. Yudichak is a dagger in the heart of the Luzerne Democratic party, as county government flipped from blue to red. It’s the latest sign that the divisions from the 2016 election aren’t going anywhere.
Marsy’s Law. Voters in every region of the state became at least somewhat familiar with the proposed victims right amendment when television ads began to flood the airwaves shortly before the November election, but the fate of Marsy’s Law will ultimately play out in the courts. Pennsylvanians largely showed support for the proposed victims right amendment by overwhelmingly voting for it by a 3-1 margin. Just a few days before the vote to add it to the state’s constitution, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court issued an injunction barring Marsy’s Law from taking effect if the voters decided to approve it.
Allegheny County Dem Committee. The machine doesn’t work quite as well as it used to. During the 2019 primary, a number of Allegheny County Democratic backed incumbents were bested by a few progressive outsider candidates. Longtime incumbent County Councilman John DeFazio was knocked out by 29-year old progressive Bethany Hallam. Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Darlene Harris lost her three-way primary to Bobby Wilson by over 20 points, while Liv Bennett bested incumbent County Councilwoman Denise Ranalli Russell by 17 points. All three incumbents received the party endorsement in a low voter turnout primary and still were unsuccessful (and some by wide margins).
Martina White. 2019 was a disaster for Republicans in Philadelphia, but this elected official leaves the year with a higher profile position and made history within the local party. State Rep. Martina White, who represents the 170th House District in Northeast Philadelphia, was elected to be the new chair of the Philadelphia Republican Party. She took over for Mike Meehan, who resigned after the local party lost a minority seat on City Council to a progressive third party challenger in addition to blowout loses in a number of other races throughout the city. White becomes the first woman to lead the local party and now adds party chair to her resume at the age of 31.
Kendra Brooks. Perhaps the biggest winner of the 2019 election in the most Democratic Party dominated city in the commonwealth is a progressive who bucked the machine in the City Council at-large race. Brooks made history in November when she became the first third party candidate to win an at-large seat on city council. Brooks, who under the Working Families Party banner, will take over one of the two designated minority party seats on Philadelphia City Council, that has historically been represented by Republicans. During her campaign she upset local Democratic Party leaders, while also earning the endorsements of progressive Democrats including City Councilwoman Helen Gym and state Rep. Chris Rabb, plus Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
New Mayors. A number of new Democratic faces will lead various city hall’s mired in scandal throughout Pennsylvania in the new decade.
- Allentown Mayor Ray O’Connell was elected to serve out the rest of former Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s term by a wide margin in November. O’Connell took over for Pawlowski in 2018 after Pawlowski resigned after being convicted in a federal corruption trial.
- Eddie Moran bested incumbent Reading Mayor Wally Scott and three others in the Democratic primary in May before coasting to victory in November over Republican Lou Perugini.
- Paige Cognetti, an Independent candidate who served in the Treasury Department in the Obama administration, won the seven candidate race to succeed former Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright, who resigned from office in July after entering a plea agreement on three federal charges that include bribery, conspiracy, and “attempt to obstruct commerce by extortion.”
- George Brown defeated Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George in the May primary, besting the incumbent in all 20 wards in the city on his way to victory.
Mark Rozzi. The state Representative who helped lead the efforts to address the state’s statutes of limitation laws finally saw his hard work pay off when Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in November. Rozzi, a victim of clergy sex abuse, championed a bill that passed with bipartisan support through the House in 2018 and remained on the forefront of the conversation in the state.
Katie Muth. The freshman Democratic state Senator from Montgomery County successfully became one of the faces of the progressive wing of the party in 2019. Muth, who was first elected in 2018 after besting a GOP incumbent, entered office with the backing of liberal Democrats, but her support among this group was solidified during the summer when she delivered a speech on the House floor about general assistance funding that went viral. While her speech was universally criticized by Republican colleagues, the video received millions of views from the progressive social news website NowThis and received applause from DeRay Mckesson, Ava DuVernay, and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Everyone? Although it is not set in stone yet, an analysis of state-by-state population estimates show that Pennsylvania is projected to lose one congressional seat, bringing the number of representatives from 18 to 17. It is not certain yet if this will happen and what region of the state will lose the seat, but it is something that all Pennsylvanians are surely rooting against.