House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks to reporters beside a map of three vacant Allegheny County legislative districts that will be the subjects of special elections next year. (Capitol-Star photo by Peter Hall)
After taking an early oath of office on Monday, and claiming control of the state House as majority leader, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, on Thursday called for special elections on primary election day in May in two Allegheny County legislative districts.
Cutler’s announcement was the latest shot in a battle between the House Republican and Democratic caucuses over which party has the authority to call elections for vacant seats that will determine control of the chamber.
House Democrats renewed accusations that Cutler’s motive in claiming authority to set the election dates was to disenfranchise voters, and to ram through Republican initiatives by keeping the Democratic-leaning seats empty as long as possible.
“The House Republican leader has already shown his disdain for good government and democracy when he rammed through an abortion ban and voter ID bill late on a Friday night in July and brought the House back into session to impeach the twice-elected Philadelphia district attorney,” House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said, referring to the late-night vote on a package of constitutional amendments that include language that would foreclose the right to abortion. “Today’s actions follow a similar playbook.”
With Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro set to take office next month, House Republicans are unlikely to pass legislation that Shapiro would sign, but they could hold a second vote on a GOP-backed constitutional amendments.
House approval would send the bill back to the Republican-controlled state Senate. Approval there would put the amendment package on track for a vote on primary day.
The May 16 primary election is more than three months after the Feb. 7 date Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, selected to fill the Allegheny County seats. McClinton also took her oath of office early and claimed she is the majority leader because Democrats won 102 of the 203 House seats in last month’s election.
Cutler has asserted that House Democrats are attempting a “paperwork insurrection,” and that the Republicans control the chamber with a 101-99 majority because three of the 102 seats Democrats won on Election Day are vacant.
Longtime Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, died of cancer in October, too late for his name to be removed from ballots, and voters reelected him.
Allegheny County Democratic Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, resigned Dec. 7 to take higher offices. Davis was elected lieutenant governor and Lee was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but both were also reelected to the House in November.
Cutler’s call for the special elections on primary day means voters in adjoining Allegheny County legislative districts would go to the polls to elect replacement state representatives in special elections on two separate dates next year.
Cutler and McClinton have both called for an election for DeLuca’s seat on Feb. 7. The Department of State, which oversees elections statewide, has questioned Cutler’s authority to call a special election because his term as House speaker expired Nov. 30.
House Republicans filed a Commonwealth Court lawsuit Dec. 9 seeking an injunction to halt the Feb. 7 elections for Davis and Lee’s seats.
Allegheny County election officials said this week that they plan to move forward with elections for all three seats on Feb. 7 unless the court blocks them. A status conference in the case is scheduled Dec. 21.
In a Capitol news conference Thursday, Cutler said holding the elections for Davis and Lee’s seats on primary election day would reduce costs for the county, prevent confusion in municipalities split between the two districts, and boost turnout.
He also was critical of Davis and Lee’s decisions to resign when they did. Although both were expected to remain in the House at least until swearing-in day Jan. 3, Cutler said that if they had resigned before Dec. 7, elections for all three districts could be held on Feb. 7.
“Quite frankly, all of this could have been avoided had those Democrats communicated to us that they intended to resign, and we could have set all of the elections at once,” Cutler said.
Cutler added that the situation was the result of political greed on the part of Democrats, suggesting that Davis and Lee’s resignations were timed to allow all three special elections to be held on Feb. 7. McClinton’s call for the special elections was premature because it came before Davis and Lee’s resignations were accepted and official, Cutler said.
Cutler also said their decisions to run for two offices at the same time was a factor.
“They ran for both offices, they wanted a fallback position,” Cutler said. “And now this has created a 101-99 minority,” he said.
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