HARRISBURG – More than half the members of the state House of Representatives will go unchallenged in this fall’s elections, getting passes back to Harrisburg that many observers credit to gerrymandered district boundaries.
All of Pennsylvania’s 203 House seats are technically up for grabs on Nov. 4 but only 96 are contested. That’s down from 107 contested seats in state elections two years ago.
Free rides are not as plentiful on the other side of the Capitol. Half of the state Senate’s 50 seats are up for election; nine are held by incumbents who face no opposition.
But observers say only a handful of the other 16 Senate races are likely to be close.
This year’s elections will be the first to occur within new legislative districts, which were set four years ago but delayed from taking effect by legal appeals.
Pundits suggest that new, gerrymandered districts are protecting lawmakers who have little concern about their job security. That blanket perhaps hurt Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s chances of accomplishing legislative priorities such as pension reform and liquor privatization.
So, while lawmakers ended the fall session with a flurry of activity, major issues – including popular topics such as property tax reform and medical marijuana – failed to get final votes.
Corbett has expressed frustration over the Legislature’s unwillingness to tackle pension reform, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses – by a margin of 111-91 with a vacancy in the House, and 27-23 in the Senate.
In response, the governor used a line-item veto to slash funding for the General Assembly.
He publicly – and unsuccessfully – asked taxpayers to lobby lawmakers to act on pension reform.
Despite Corbett’s frustrations, his campaign spokesman said the governor doesn’t believe the legislative redistricting process should be reformed.
Corbett is in favor of reducing the Legislature’s size, however.
Democrat Tom Wolf, who is challenging Corbett in the governor’s race, has said he’ll support an amendment to the state Constitution that creates a nonpartisan commission to redraw political boundaries based on geography, instead of gerrymandering.
“Pennsylvania legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered, often supporting incumbents or members of the party that drew the districts,” said Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan. “As a result, voters can have little say over who represents them in Congress, or in the state legislature, by voting in districts drawn to achieve a certain result. As governor, Tom Wolf will work to end gerrymandering.”
The election watchdog group Common Cause says moving away from gerrymandering, and correcting problems with campaign financing, are the best ways to break through partisan gridlock, said Barry Kauffman, the group’s executive director in Pennsylvania.
But lawmakers unopposed in this fall’s elections said gerrymandering isn’t interfering with their efforts to get things done, and they insist they still feel accountable to their constituents.
State Rep. Mark Longietti of Hermitage, D-7th District, is among those without competition.
He said Corbett’s proposals didn’t happen because they were bad ideas. It wasn’t because the Legislature is ineffective.
State Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver, R-Northumberland County, who faced opposition when she initially ran for office but hasn’t been challenged since, said some of these major policy issues are complex.
It takes time for people to understand them and build the consensus needed to get laws passed, said Schlegel-Culver, who is seeking a third term.
“If you don’t think we feel pressure, we do,” she said. “I’d like to have gotten something done with pension reform, but it’s an extraordinarily complicated issue.”
State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County, who is unopposed this time but has faced opponents in the past, noted that state representatives serve two-year terms and therefore begin the next campaign almost as soon as this one’s over.
Not all those running unchallenged for a spot in the nation’s largest full-time state legislature are longtime incumbents.
In fact, there are more freshman lawmakers running unopposed than long-timers.
Eleven of those who are unopposed in their bids for re-election to the state House have been in office for more than two decades.
Sixteen lawmakers are unopposed even though they’ve served less than a full term in office.
And five candidates for the House, who are not currently House members, are unopposed. Those walking into elected office on Nov. 4 include Tedd Nesbit, who faces no general election opposition to succeed retiring state Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer County.
Nesbit said he was surprised to hear how many lawmakers are unopposed. But he said voters can still influence government.
The emergence of medical marijuana as a serious political issue, he said, demonstrates how voters can get things on lawmakers’ radar.
He also noted the ouster of former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary.
Though Nesbit has no Democratic opposition this fall, he beat two other Republicans in the primary.
That reflects another symptom of gerrymandering, said Kauffman. In districts that tilt heavily to one party’s advantage, races are often decided in primary elections.
And incumbents who have those jobs – and make a base salary of $84,012 – rarely face opposition from within their own party to keep them, he said.