Turzai put political advantage ahead of public health with House special elections | Mark O’Keefe

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny ("Friends of Mike Turzai" / WikiMedia Commons)

Pennsylvania Republican Party officials were ecstatic about wins by GOP candidates in a trio of special elections for state House earlier this month.

“These victories serve to further the Republican momentum in Pennsylvania ahead of the Nov. 3rd General Election. From President Trump, to our statewide row offices, our congressional races, and General Assembly, Pennsylvania will be a red state in 2020 on the strength of our candidates,” said Lawrence Tabas, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

However, Tabas and other GOP officials might want to take a second look at the races, especially in regards to turnout.

Since they were special elections, which always draw fewer voters than primary or general elections, turnout was expected to be low compared to a general election. But, coming as they did amid the COVID-19 pandemic, turnout was expected to be especially light. And it was.

The special elections were held to seek replacements for three Republican state House lawmakers who won election last November to municipal offices in Westmoreland, Mercer and Bucks counties for the 58th, 8th, and 18th House Districts.

Reps. Justin Walsh, of Westmoreland County, and Tedd Nesbit, of Mercer County, won county judgeships, while Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, of Bucks County, was elected county commissioner.

In 2018, Walsh beat Democrat Mary Popovich 14,189 to 8,880. A total of 22,991 votes were cast.

Republican Eric M. Davanzo beat Democrat Robert Prah Jr. 4,269 to 3,294 to win the open seat. Libertarian candidate Kenneth J. Bach captured 556 votes, according to the Department of State.

In 2018, Nesbit beat Democrat Lisa K. Boeving-Leonard 16,211 to 7,696. A total of 23,907 votes were cast.

In the special for Nesbit’s seat, Republican Timothy Bonner beat Democrat Phil Heasley, 3,998 to 1,325, according to the Department of State.

In 2018, DiGirolamo beat Democrat James John Lamb III, 12,870-9,987. A total of 22,857 votes were cast.

In the special election for his seat, Republican Kathleen C. Tomlinson beat Republican Harold M. Hayes 4,516 to 3,661, according to theDepartment of State’s website.

Democrats contend that state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who controls the dates of special elections, should have postponed the elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Republicans should be ashamed of putting politics before the health of Pennsylvania families,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democratic legislative candidates nationwide.

Voters were supposed to see many safety efforts. Polls workers wore told to wear gloves and each voting machine was supposed to be cleaned and sanitized after every use.

While there were problems reported in all three elections, they were severe in the 58th Legislative District.

Two polling locations were moved at the last minute because of health concerns, according to the Tribune-Review, and replacements had to be brought in for dozens of poll workers who resigned their posts days before the election. Generally, poll workers are older people, who are more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Beth Lechman, director of Westmoreland County’s Elections Bureau, told the Tribune-Review that bureau offices were deluged with calls on the Monday before Election Day asking about the status of the special election, with some expressing concern about holding an election during the coronavirus scare.

All of that was on top of concerns from Democratic Party officials about holding the special elections on March 17 in the first place. Democrats had noted that they could have saved almost a $1 million by holding the elections on April 28, the same date as the state’s primary election.

Turzai’s spokesman, Neal Lesher, said special elections are called “as soon as practically possible to ensure that all Pennsylvanians have a voice in the people’s House.”

But all three Republican House members won their races last November, meaning if Turzai was truly concerned about timing, he should have scheduled the elections for January, allowing the newly-elected lawmakers to begin serving their terms immediately.

It’s doubtful if taxpayers will be getting anything of real value anyway by holding the special elections six weeks early. The House is in semi-permanent park in the midst of the pandemic.

It’s clear that by scheduling the special elections when he did, Turzai wasn’t worried holding the elections promptly or saving taxpayers money. He showed little concern for the safety of voters or poll workers, especially those who were senior citizens. Knowing everything going was going to result in extremely low turnouts, Turzai also showed little regard for democracy.

This is not to cast any aspersions on the Republican lawmakers who won these elections. They won them fair and square.

But this isn’t the end of the story. All the candidates will be unopposed in the primaries on April 28 and will almost certainly face each other again in the November general election.

We’ll see then if the victories last Tuesday were the start of a red wave or if they were the result of Turzai’s election calendar manipulations.

In the end, come November the candidates will have to stand or fall on their own merits.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly.