POLS ON THE STREET: Philly, Pa. Display Starring Roles in 2021 Races

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EVERYBODY thinks Attorney General Josh Shapiro is going somewhere; but where in particular?

For one not-so-brief, shining moment, the Philadelphia City Commission was a national spectacle in the struggle to reframe national leadership.

Philadelphia County was the main target of Republican efforts, led by President Donald Trump, to undo Trump’s defeat in Pennsylvania in November 2020. Allegations ranging from trivial to false disputed the validity of Philadelphia’s Democratic turnout for Joe Biden in order to dismiss up to all 7.9 million votes cast for presidential hopefuls in the state. All such charges were cast aside by a phalanx of courts, yet they were pursued by some Republican legislators even after the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It was a long moment in the limelight that Pennsylvania was happy to shed.

Now that Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 is legally assured, the shape of politics in 2021 is emerging both nationally and locally.

First mention goes to the normally obscure body whose three commissioners oversee the city’s elections – made incomparably more difficult this year by Act 77, which boosted registration and actual voting; by the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw a monkey wrench into procedures; and by the close statewide presidential vote, which made its outcome a prime prize for after-the-fact disputants.

REPUBLICAN City Commissioner Al Schmidt captured national attention on “60 Minutes” with his dogged pursuit of a fair election count in Philadelphia.

Under extreme duress, they delivered remarkably. While Democrats Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir acted as a seamless team with Republican Al Schmidt on the bipartisan body, it was Schmidt who drew national attention during the days-long count of city votes. He defended our Board of Elections procedures and results against varied claims by state and national Republicans, among them Trump, who tweeted that Schmidt “refuses to look at the mountain of corruption and dishonesty;” more immediately, Schmidt received death threats. But he also attracted a depth interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” a first for a Philadelphia row officer.

No one will blame him then for announcing last week that his current term on City Commission, which expires in 2023, will be his last. Schmidt denied that the controversy of 2020 pushed him over the brink, though. The equable, meticulous commissioner merely stated that all jobs reach a natural finish and that he had accomplished what he ran to achieve when first elected in 2011. Schmidt enjoys near-universal respect in Philadelphia political circles and would make a plausible candidate for minority councilmember at large. Nevertheless, he holds a doctorate and would make an attractive candidate in many other occupations.

BRENDAN BOYLE will find enhanced stature as Philadelphia’s senior congressman in the House of Representatives’ majority caucus.

Philadelphia Delegation Swings New Weight in Congress

At the national level, three local lawmakers, Congressmembers Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans and Mary Gay Scanlon, will enjoy their first taste of true power. Although they have served with force in the last House of Representatives’ Democratic majority, the most they could do in practice was to push bills that passed there only to die in the Republican-held Senate, or at best to be vetoed by the inscrutable Trump. No more. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Vice President Kamala Harris will clear a way for Democrats in that body while President Biden whisks them past his pen if they can evade a Republican cloture.

Of the three, Boyle has the most seniority as he enters his fourth term. He has been sitting on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, with expertise in health care and the Middle East.

He started the new term by redefining his relationship with his Republican colleagues, with particular reference to those who fanned the flames of false statements that the November election was fraudulent. He introduced a House resolution that calls for a formal inquiry into the validity of the election of each member of the House who makes that claim. The resolution would also bar a member of Congress from voting in the House while that fraud inquiry is conducted into their self-proclaimed “fraudulent election.”

“Some members have announced they are seeking to cancel American democracy and reverse the official results of the 2020 Presidential election. This ridiculous fantasy is nothing short of a seditious subversion of the will of the American people,” said Boyle. “But it’s time for these members to follow their argument to its logical conclusion. They were also elected in the same election, using the same process. If they believe the presidential election was fraudulent, then so was their election.”

PAT TOOMEY vows to depart the U.S. Senate in 2022, leaving a huge hole in Keystone State Republican leadership, if he eschews other elected office.

Before Jan. 6, that resolution may have seemed like mere smoke. After the attack by insurrectionists, however, tempers in the House are higher. Minority Republicans face a reckoning if they are to win any individual legislative sweetmeats from Democrats in power like Boyle. Wiser ones among them may adjust their stance on the election in a more-prudent direction.

Statewide elections will take center stage in 2021. This year will see intensive jockeying in both parties for the races to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), each of whom will end service in his office.

There has been speculation that Toomey can win the GOP nomination for governor if he decides early enough that he wants it. Toomey will emerge from the Trump scandals not too close to Trump to woo moderates, yet not too aloof from him to garner Trump’s loyalists. State Rep. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), a Trumpian conservative, would also like the governorship. He may leave a sour taste with voters who are uneasy about Trump, since Mastriano was heavily (although not unlawfully as far as we know) involved in the recent coup attempt. But Trumpistas may respond to him for the same reason. Former Congressman Lou Barletta is also sniffing the wind. If he contends in the Republican primary, he would split the Trumpist vote with Mastriano, leaving Toomey an easy victory. Toomey has said he yearns to return to the private sector; but that is a temptation other career politicos have overcome before.

STATE SEN. Doug Mastriano seeks to harness the fervor of Trump’s followers all the way to the Pennsylvania Governor’s Mansion.

Who Wants the Governor’s Job? Raise Your Hands

For the GOP, no fewer than 18 names for the governorship have been tossed around by pros. This year will be devoted to winnowing out the pack to no more than a half dozen by year’s end. Wise heads in Republican State Committee will try to assist this process even as they sort through the debris from Trump’s loss in the Keystone State. In recent years, fierce GOP primaries have drained the funds of contestants, leaving the eventual standard-bearer outgunned by a secure Democratic opponent.

Obvious names include Montco businessman Paul Mango, who ran for governor in 2018; centrist former Buxco Congressman Charlie Dent; two other congressmen; Mastriano along with three other State senators and numerous State representatives … it sounds exhausting.

Philadelphia financial investigator Everett Stern, who has kicked up dirt uncovering sordid Middle East investments, has already vowed to run. Other hometown notables include retiring U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, who has made himself visible on Philly’s contentious crime scene, and feisty State Rep. Martina White (D-Northeast).

PHILADELPHIA health-insurance magnate Dan Hilferty may make an intriguing entry into the Republican primary for the governor’s race.

Longtime Philadelphia insurance leader Dan Hilferty is pondering a run for governor as a Republican. He would be an interesting candidate. Decidedly moderate and bipartisan by temper (he once ran for lieutenant governor as a Democrat and contributed to Biden’s campaign), he just retired as president and CEO of Independence Health Group. He would garner large financial support from the Delaware Valley business community. If Pennsylvanians are sick of extreme political positions by 2022, a man who had spent a year fighting COVID-19 rather than the other side of the aisle could prove to be a safe and soothing candidate.

No one doubts that Attorney General Josh Shapiro will run for a new office in 2022. But which one? Most observers take it his eye is on the Governor’s Mansion. However, he was in his youth a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Phila.) would much prefer Shapiro to go for governor as Street is exploring a shot for that U.S. Senate seat. Street has been active in statewide politics in his current term, logging 150,000 miles to accrue facetime with fellow Democrats since his election in 2017. If he takes that path, the influential senator will command Democratic City Committee backing as well as a rack of other Philadelphia funder; he will, after all, be re-elected State senator in 2021, thus still influential even if he doesn’t make it to Washington in 2022.

STATE SEN. Sharif Street would like to make history by replacing Pat Toomey in the U.S. Senate.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman also aspires to higher office. He has been quite visible in state politics, commanding more than his share of air. He would not shy away from either a gubernatorial or senatorial job. He would appeal to Dems looking for an unconventional, progressive alternative to an establishment candidate like Shapiro.

Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney will be term-limited and unable to run for re-election in 2023. He might take a shot at the governor’s race. In a crowded primary, he could do well in 2022. But his many progressive policies could amplify the common anti-Philadelphia prejudice in conservative parts of the state. To sell himself statewide, he would have to develop a special pitch and start marketing it tout de suite.

Hard Feelings in Harrisburg Spell Big Electoral Changes

On Capitol Hill in Harrisburg, relations will become even more toxic between Republicans, whose control of the State Senate and House of Representatives has been reinforced, and Gov. Wolf. Some of these knife fights will immediately impact 2021 elections, with longterm consequences for future years.

Bruised by the November results, many in the Republican majority have sworn to undo the power of unrestricted mail-in voting they pushed through a year earlier. They fear it aids Democrats disproportionately. That may be true to some extent, although logically it would benefit many Republican voters as well if they weren’t burdened by a ticket-leader like Trump who kept spouting falsehoods about mailed votes, which have been normal and harmless on a small scale for generations and can clearly be upgraded for 21st-century conditions. They would probably tack onto a repeal or restriction of this popular measure a rack of procedural fiddles for county election boards. We expect Wolf to veto anything they produce and the Rs to fail to override it.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR John Fetterman would be hard to overlook in the lineup of candidates for either governor or senator.

Republican lawmakers may have better luck on another project: electing appellate jurists from geographical districts instead of statewide as is the case now. Advocates argue that statewide elections favor candidates supported by the populous Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions and there is merit to that claim. But the political meat to this project is that they believe statewide votes increase the odds of Democratic victories in elections for these slots.

The Democratic majority on the Supreme Court that resulted from the 2017 election favored that court’s decision to redraw the 2012 congressional map, which had been severely gerrymandered to produce a lopsided GOP majority. The current map reflects the rather even, purple distribution of Keystone State party allegiance. Republicans pray for a return of unchecked gerrymandering, should they again seize the House, the Senate and the governorship in a redistricting year. Thus their yearning for a new way to capture the SC.

Republicans have begun fast-track legislation to put district judicial voting on the ballot in time for this spring primary as a constitutional amendment, which admits no gubernatorial veto. Early signs are they may succeed. Small-turnout primaries favor party machines.

But a constitutional amendment must be approved by the voters in two successive legislative sessions; and although the measure passed also last year, candidates under the current system are already on the spring primary for this year. So the earliest these new districts could be executed is after the 2022 primary, unless the legislation is devilishly crafted. This leads to two important electoral outcomes.

SUPERIOR COURT Judge Carolyn Nichols is eager to claim a prized seat on the Supreme Court in this year’s election.

First, reapportionment in 2021 will not be winner-takes-all for the Republicans. Wolf will be in office and new lines (in which Pennsylvania will lose a congressional seat) must be negotiated between the General Assembly and him. Population changes of the last 10 years somewhat favor the Democrats. Therefore, some equity between the parties is a likely outcome before the 2022 congressional vote, with Republicans at risk of losing one net seat.

Secondly, the 2021 appellate races will follow the current rules – but perhaps for the last time. This raises an interesting question for solons who aspire to a higher seat – but hail from either Philadelphia or Allegheny County: Strike while the iron is hot! One seat will be open on the Supreme and Superior Courts, two on Commonwealth Courts. In recent years, appellate races have favored women.

For Superior Court, Common Pleas Court Judge Timika Lane is running for Superior Court, a body that hears personal appeals. She has the endorsement of State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-W. Phila.), incoming Democratic Caucus chair.

ANOTHER Superior Court Judge, Maria McLaughlin, also wants a Supreme Court seat. But there is only room for one winner in this year’s race in the spring primary.

Common Pleas Judge Sierra Thomas Street has her eye on Commonwealth Court, which adjudicates complex matters of law involving public bodies. She is joined in this interest by her colleague Lori Dumas.

Philadelphia bred two luminary women who wound up on Superior Court, Judges Carolyn Nichols and Maria McLaughlin. Now both want that seat on the Supreme Court. Both have strong backing in Philadelphia circles. Both have been working the length of the state for years, on their Superior Court day job as well as building political relationships. Both are gregarious, sharp-witted and well respected.

If both continue their run – and neither seems the type to drop out – then it will be a hard match. If a Western Pennsylvania candidate drops in the race, they may split the Southeastern vote and both lose. Look for tough choices locally and abroad as the race develops.

Much remains to be sorted out as 2021 brings forth the state’s political future. But the action has begun.

This article was updated 1/21/20, 10:20 a.m.

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One Response to POLS ON THE STREET: Philly, Pa. Display Starring Roles in 2021 Races

  1. I’m so appreciative of the information shared in the Philly Record. Ward Leaders such as myself rely on the political insight found in Philly Record. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Gregory R. Benjamin
    Ward Leader, 51st

    Gregory Benjamin
    January 20, 2021 at 11:20 am

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