The last moderate standing?: Suburban Republicans look to life after Gene DiGirolamo

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, has served in the Pa. House since 1994 and has served as a dean of sorts for the Republican's moderate, suburban wing of the party. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The ripples from Tuesday night’s Democratic sweep in the Philadelphia suburbs aren’t going to wait until next November to exert their influence on Harrisburg.

One of the chamber’s last, and most stubbornly moderate Republican lawmakers, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, ran for, and won, a seat on Bucks County’s Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night. 

He’ll be the lone Republican, serving alongside two Democrats, in one of the three county governments to go blue in the collar counties.

When he takes the oath of office, DiGirolamo will close the door on a career in the state House that began in 1994.

But with the win, DiGirolamo’s moderating presence — and strong voice for suburban Republicans on such issues as the minimum wage or additional funding for human serviceswill now be absent from the Capitol. And when DiGirolamo leaves Harrisburg, it’ll also spark a special election race in a seat that has repeatedly endorsed his increasingly rare brand of suburban Republicanism.

Speaking the Capital-Star on Wednesday, DiGirolamo said the House’s Republican leadership has to “make sure the southeast can vote the way constituents would want them to vote, and not try to force them to put up votes that would come back and harm them in an election year.”

DiGirolamo said he’s “very comfortable” that the coalition of like-minded Republicans — pro-labor, pro-environment, and socially moderate — he helped build over the past few years will be able to hold their own in an increasingly conservative House GOP caucus.

He said he expected such colleagues as Reps. Tom Murt, of Montgomery County, Martina White, of Philadelphia, Tom Mehaffie, of Dauphin County, and his Bucks County colleague, Frank Farry, to step up in his stead.

Farry told the Capital-Star that seeing DiGirolamo leave Harrisburg would be a tough loss, but that the vacuum would be filled. 

“[DiGirolamo], with his seniority, was one of the louder voices on regional issues,” Farry told the Capital-Star.

DiGirolamo in particular never shied away from sticking up for his convictions. That includes trying to force a vote on a severance tax on natural gas production — anathema to state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny — during a budget standoff in 2017.

As chair of the Human Services Committee, and more than two decades of lawmaking experience that spanned both Republican and Democratic majorities in the lower chamber, DiGirolamo also served as a dean of sorts for the shrinking ranks of suburban GOP lawmakers. 

At its peak, that coalition represented much of the party’s legislative leadership, until it gradually lost ground over the last decade to conservative lawmakers from western Pennsylvania. They also saw increasingly successful challenges from suburban Democrats over the past few election cycles.

The trend culminated last year, when 14 seats in the House flipped red to the blue in the southeast — including eight incumbent lawmakers.

The building blocks of a majority

DiGirolamo, one of the House’s more affable members, would often be one of a handful of Republicans to back Democratic bills to expand equal pay protections, provide family leave, or mandate universal childhood lead testing, lending the proposals a bipartisan air.

That might make ideological sense for a Republican who embraced all aspects of “pro-life” — he consistently had zero percent ratings from abortion rights groups. 

But Jeff Coleman, a former Republican lawmaker from Indiana County, who’s now a GOP political operative, said backing social justice positions that might require a slight tax increase raised eyebrows within the Grand Old Party.

“[DiGirolamo] has frustrated significant segments of the conservative movement, but he has always understood his district,” Coleman, who served in the House with DiGirolamo, told the Capital-Star

Voting with unions or for tax hikes might alienate parts of the Republican pro-business base. But, Coleman said, “the suburban Republican has to tilt” to a pro-union, pro-consumer protection agenda “more than someone who is in a ‘live free or die’ section of rural Pennsylvania.”

But Coleman said his combination of traits and positions made him a valuable member of the caucus. Other current Republicans, like Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, said he still valued DiGirolamo’s perspective even if their ideology didn’t match.

His work on opioid abuse and mental health issues, Ortitay said, will be “the part that’ll be missed the most.”

Democratic lawmakers expressed appreciation for DiGirolamo’s compromising ways and amiable attitude. But with DiGirolamo now on his way to the county courthouse in Doylestown, Democrats also sense an opportunity to cut into Republicans’ nine-seat edge in the House to win back a majority.

“DiGirolamo is going to do a great job representing Bucks County as a commissioner, but ultimately a Democrat in this seat is one more seat” for a potential Democratic majority, Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, the chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, told the Capital-Star Wednesday.

In total, Republicans hold just 13 House seats out of 43 districts that include parts of Philadelphia’s four collar counties.

DiGirolamo’s 18th District seat looks like fertile ground for a flip. DiGirolamo brushed aside a Democratic challenger in 2018 57-43 percent. But Gov. Tom Wolf crushed Republican Scott Wagner there 63-37 percent, according to election analyst Ben Forstate.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, won the district 53-44 percent over President Donald Trump in 2016, according to numbers crunched by Daily Kos, a progressive blog.

Chris Nicholas, a GOP political operative who worked for one of the few surviving southeast Republicans Tuesday — Philadelphia Councilman Brian O’Neill — said keeping the district would be an uphill struggle.

“Is there another DiGirolamo coming up through the ranks?” he asked rhetorically.

But DiGirolamo also pointed to Republican wins in local Bensalem races Tuesday as a positive sign that his district might not be primed to flip. That does come with some conditions on the type of candidate that the local GOP picks.

“I would be shocked if the Republican who’s going to run for my seat does not mirror much of the same things I’ve been fighting for,” DiGirolamo said, citing his strong environmental record and support of both public- and private- sector unions.

In such a case, he expected the district would “absolutely” be a Republican hold.

And, like Democrats, DiGirolamo argued that the path to a GOP-controlled state House runs through suburban districts like his own.

“If you look at the members in the southeast who think like me — [and] there’s other ones spread around the state — if you lose that group of people, if they get beaten, the Republicans will not be in the majority,” DiGirolamo said.

The district’s peculiarly split between local and national politics already has political operatives eying it as a strong 2020 bellwether.

And it’s not like he plans to go anywhere, an understanding that Farry had already reached.

“The good news is, [DiGirolamo’s] still only going to be a phone call away,” Farry said. “If there’s some stuff going on in Harrisburg, our phones are going to be ringing.”