Two state legislators ran for re-election and also sought other elected positions during interim periods. This perfectly legal strategy will put the Pennsylvania House Democrats in trouble next January.
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom operated by The Philadelphia Inquirer in association with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.
Democrats won control of the Pennsylvania State House on Nov. 8, but their majority will disappear for at least a few weeks into the new year.
Republicans will temporarily hold a 101-99 lead in the 203-seat chamber, in part due to the death of a longtime lawmaker whose seat must be filled in a special election.
But the Democratic majority will also take a hit because two state lawmakers ran for re-election while simultaneously vying for different elected offices — a perfectly legal choice that some advocates of good government say shouldn’t be an option.
The Pennsylvania Constitution expressly prohibits General Assembly legislators from holding any other local, state, or federal office.
Despite this prohibition, nothing prohibits state legislatures from running for re-election and for another elected office at the same time, which State Representatives Austin Davis (D., Allegheny) and Summer Lee (D., Allegheny) both did. Davis will be the next lieutenant governor, while Lee won her race to become Pittsburgh’s next member of Congress.
What Davis and Lee did isn’t unusual, and politicians said it offered an insurance policy: Even if the candidate loses their bid for another elected office, they’re likely to stick with their old seat.
But when a state legislature wins another office, replacing it requires a special election that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to administer. Legislative voters have also been without representation in Harrisburg for months, said Pat Christmas, a policy analyst with the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy.
“The quest for higher office should still take a leap,” Christmas said in an email.
(However, the committee opposes resignation laws such as those on the books for elected officials and government employees in Philadelphia, arguing that they confer an unfair advantage on official holders unaffected by such a requirement and the independently wealthy .)
The state law regarding job openings during the legislature’s term also favors political parties over voters, Christmas noted. The law gives local leaders of major parties the opportunity to select candidates, often in private meetings.
Usually, in a body as large as the Pennsylvania House, being a member of two means little, and openings sometimes arise as lawmakers pursue different options during the session. State Department data shows that the state has held an average of 4.5 special legislative elections per year for the past decade.
But because Democrats won just 102 seats in the state house — giving them a one-seat majority — every lawmaker matters as lawmakers prepare to select a speaker to chair the chamber and set rules for the upcoming session .
Democrats will have at most 101 votes on Inauguration Day, Jan. 3, because of the sudden death of State Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D., Allegheny) a month before the midterm election — too close to Nov. 8 to get his name off the ballot .
Davis and Lee’s upcoming resignations could end the Democrats’ power grab before it begins if the party doesn’t get the endorsement of some Republican lawmakers to support Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) as speaker and drive legislation in the first months.
That will likely mean some horse-trading, said Bill DeWeese, a former speaker of the Democratic House of Representatives who lost the seat in 2006 after some members of his own party, including then-Rep. Josh Shapiro, threw their support behind a moderate Philadelphia Republican.
DeWeese told Spotlight PA that in the days that followed, leading up to noon on swearing-in day, he expects a “dizzying amount of phone calls to try to flatter and persuade people of the opposing party to vote against their caucus for speakership.”
Davis, DeLuca and Lee’s seats remain vacant until the new House Speaker calls a special election to replace them.
According to state law, the three special elections must be held by the primary election in May 2023 at the latest.
When asked why Davis was running for both offices, the Shapiro campaign referred to previous statements by lawmakers.
“I’ve dedicated my life and career to public service,” Davis told WESA in January. “And I want to continue that ministry either way, so I’ll be a candidate for both.”
Abigail Gardner, Lee’s campaign spokeswoman, said the campaign “had had no negative feedback on anyone.”
“It’s a pretty understandable situation,” she said.
Nor is there any legal obligation for elected state officials who are not up for re-election to resign while seeking another office. Both major party contenders for governor — Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Republican Senator Doug Mastriano of Franklin County — kept their current jobs while running this year.
Mastriano remains in the General Assembly and is up for re-election in 2024. Shapiro will remain attorney general until he is sworn in on January 17. He will then be able to nominate his own successor to complete his term, although the Republican-controlled state Senate must approve his choice.