After year of tough votes, Dermody loses reelection, clearing way for Democratic free-for-all

Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso).

After three decades in Harrisburg, one of them spent managing an increasingly diverse Democratic caucus, and a number of electoral close calls, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, will not be returning for a 16th term.

In a concession statement issued Tuesday night, Dermody wished his GOP challenger, Oakmont Councilwoman Carrie DelRosso, luck in the future in addressing the “many issues facing our commonwealth that will require bipartisan cooperation.”

DelRosso currently leads Dermody 51.5 to 48.5 in the 33rd House District, according to unofficial results on the Department of State website. But as early as last Thursday, he already appeared in trouble.

Political observers say the job of minority leader is hard when you’re tasked with defending your own party’s governor, as Dermody was often called to do this year on such controversial topics as the coronavirus and climate change.

He also faced a well-funded opponent aided by a traditional Democratic allies in organized labor and a big money Republican donor who spent liberally this year to help elect conservatives.

Dermody’s loss will kickstart a fast moving leadership election Thursday, as House Democrats meet in Harrisburg to pick Dermody’s successor, with long term ramifications for the party’s legislative ambitions, as well as for many individual lawmaker.

In a Facebook post celebrating her win, DelRosso said that she’d bring “fresh ideas and new energy to the job.”

“A pandemic has hurt our economy, and government has yet to live within its means,” DelRosso said. “I hope to be a voice for fiscal responsibility and commonsense government in the years ahead.”

The 33rd House District includes Oakmont, Cheswick, and Tarentum in Allegheny County among other municipalities, as well as New Kensington and Arnold in Westmoreland County. The district, which includes heavy industries, such as steel and coal-fired electric generation, has been traditionally Democratic, but moved right in recent years.

Dermody was first elected in 1990 after serving as an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County. He used that experience in law early in his House career, when he managed the impeachment of state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994.

Afterwards, he slowly rose through the ranks, becoming House Majority Whip in 2009 before taking over the Democratic caucus in 2011 after the previous leader, Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, lost reelection in the Tea Party wave.

Dermody has often faced tight reelections, including winning by about 1,000 votes in 2014. But he’s usually found a way to pull through. This time, however, Dermody faced opposition from an unexpected source: trade unions. 

DelRosso was endorsed by the locals of such unions as the Boilermakers, whose work is often in fossil fuel-fired power plants, as well as the Laborers, who work on construction projects.

John Hughes, business manager of Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh, told WESA-FM last month that Dermody “has been good with the building trades his entire career,” but added that trades “just need a voice. We’re not getting a voice out of the Democratic Party.”

And in a statement issued after Dermody’s concession, Philip Ameris, president and business manager of the Western Pennsylvania Laborers’ District Council said that he understood that elected officials “have to balance many issues, but for our members, jobs have to come first. We support politicians who can put politics aside in the interest of creating good jobs.” 

DelRosso’s campaign was mostly financed by such labor unions, which contributed $201,000 of the $240,000 she raised between June and October this year. She was also aided by $159,000 in mailers from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a conservative group backed by a pro-school choice billionaire.

Some of the unions’ beef with Dermody can be traced back years. But other issues are part of the larger split between Pennsylvania trades, who see natural gas as a path to jobs, and Democrats who want to control carbon emissions to fight climate change.

For example, Dermody voted against an early version of a multi-million dollar tax credit for methane before backing later versions. He also was forced into a tough position when Gov. Tom Wolf entered the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI,  to cap carbon emissions from state power plants.

Seeking to block a carbon tax, the House fell short of a veto-proof majority. How?

Dermody ended up voting against Wolf a bill to block RGGI this summer. His spokesperson said at the time it was a jobs vote.

Mike Manzo, a lobbyist and former top Democratic staffer who worked with Dermody, said that leading a minority with a governor of your own party, such as Wolf, can be dangerous political territory.

As leader of legislative Democrats, Dermody could be caught in the middle if his constituents wanted him to vote one way, but the governor of the party he leads wants to go another.

Like many other western Pennsylvania Democrats, addressing climate change is one of those political hard spots, Manzo said.

But unlike as a rank-and-file member, splitting with the governor is not an easy option as a leader. Dermody has to keep up a good relationship with Wolf, because his veto pen was their only leverage in the minority, Manzo said.

“You can’t turn your back on a governor,” Manzo said. “You have to be there in lock step with him, because if not, you have no power anywhere else.”

While Dermody may have made a rare break with Wolf on RGGI, he did stand with the governor on a flurry of bills this year to strip Wolf of power or reopen businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dermody did vote against Wolf one other time, on a bill on crowd sizes at school sports. But when Republicans called it up for an override, he once again stood firm.

“I am not going to override the governor’s veto,” Dermody said at the time.

These unpopular votes, combined with an outsider challenge and Dermody’s long track record, can add up.

“Sometimes experience becomes more of a burden than an asset when you face an electorate that is cranky,” Manzo said.

Democrats, no matter their ideology, agreed that Dermody did a good job balancing his dual roles, as well as leading the Democratic caucus.

Dermody “is a beloved leader,” Rep. Danielle Otten, D-Chester, said in a tweet. “The lives he has touched across this commonwealth are so many. He will always have the love, admiration and respect of our family, no matter what role he leads from. We will miss him so much.”

“He is a break from the old school top down type of leadership the [House] used to have,” Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said in a text message. “He empowered members with the autonomy to better represent their constituents in Harrisburg.”

In his concession statement, Dermody listed creating a state health insurance exchange as well as pouring millions of dollars in infrastructure and grant spending into his district northwest of Pittsburgh as top accomplishments of his 30 years in office.

Manzo also credited Dermody with holding together Democrats through a long decade out of power, even as the party became increasingly divided along ideological lines.

Dermody “stopped a lot of bad legislation forward by keeping his caucus together,” whether on pension reform, prevailing wage, or right to work, Manzo said.

It’s wasn’t immediately clear who will replace Dermody in the top spot. House Democratic leadership elections will be decided Thursday. And with Dermody officially out of office, it has started a free-for-all among the 90 members of the caucus.

More than a dozen names, including lawmakers already in leadership, formerly in leadership, or entirely new to the posts, have been floated to round out the six-person team of legislators. 

Among the leading names to head the caucus are ranking Appropriations Democrat Matt Bradford, of Montgomery, and Minority Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia. 

A third way candidate is also possible, House Democrats say, as they try to balance regional, ideological, racial and gender diversity at the top.

Whoever is picked for leadership will manage the caucus’ inner workings and plot big picture strategy for the next two years, including guiding the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

“The men and women of our caucus are an inspiration to me, and I look forward to watching new leaders come forward to advance an agenda that moves Pennsylvania forward,” Dermody said in his concession.