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Impact of legislative races could be felt for years

Monday, November 06, 2000

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh region's political map for the next decade may be determined by a few thousand voters a few hundred miles away who have little reason to know or care about issues facing Western Pennsylvania.

Tomorrow's balloting will decide which party controls the state House, now divided 100-100 between Republicans and Democrats, with three seats vacant. While those races are waged in the deep shadow of the presidential contest, they -- or at least a select few of them -- are the objects of intense, multimillion dollar battles befitting their crucial role in the allocation of political power within the state.

Using the numbers from this year's census, the state Legislature is charged with charting the boundaries of new districts for Congress, and the state House and Senate. If Democrats manage to take over the state House tomorrow, they would have a seat at the table when those decisions are made. Republicans, secure in their control of the state Senate and governor's mansion, would be free to dictate the new political map if they retain control of the lower chamber. Despite the tie, Republicans maintain leadership control.

The stakes in redistricting are always high. The artful allocation of voters to one seat or another can go a long way toward ensuring which party is likely to capture those seats.

At the congressional level, some of those decisions will be particularly agonizing in Pennsylvania because the nation's and the state's population shifts demand that the state will lose two congressional seats in nationwide reapportionment.

At least one of those seats will be taken away from southwestern Pennsylvania. It is likely that the other will come at the expense of Philadelphia.

All 203 state House seats are on the ballot tomorrow, but only a relative handful of districts are considered to be truly competitive. While there are surprises in almost every cycle of legislative elections -- and some of them could come in Western Pennsylvania -- the House majority is expected to pivot on the outcomes of just a handful of races in the Philadelphia suburbs, and northeastern Pennsylvania. Those are the districts in which the two caucuses have placed their heaviest bets in the forms of money and organizational effort.

A hint at the stakes in these races could be found on a sunny August afternoon in the garden of a fashionable restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. During a break at the Democratic National Convention, lobbyists, politicians and delegates mingled at a fund-raising lunch for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, adding to the war chest for these targeted state House races.

It was the first time the Democratic caucus's campaign committee had taken advantage of the national convention as a forum for fund raising and it was symbolic of the increasing sophistication and resources that the parties are bringing to this playing field.

In some previous election cycles, the Republican House leadership in Harrisburg had enjoyed a large and consistent fund-raising advantage over their Democratic counterparts. This year, the Democratic leadership, anticipating reapportionment and chafing at the minority status they had endured throughout the Ridge administration, vowed to change that. They have.

"It's like night and day," said Rep. T.J. Rooney, one of the architects of the Democratic drive. "In the past we were outspent, three-and-a-half to one. This year, our fund-raising goal went from $1.5 million to $4 million and we are going to fully fund that ... in the targeted races, that means it allows us to be competitive on the airwaves and in the field."

Steven Drachler, spokesman for Rep. John Perzel, the House Republican majority leader, acknowledged that the Democrats have picked up their game this year but professed to be serene about GOP prospects.

"They've done a better job, there's no question about that," Drachler said. "They've done a better job because they've learned from us. What it's done is nudge our organization up to an even higher level."

Circulating at the August fund-raiser was Kevin Mack, executive director of the National Legislative Campaign Committee. He said that Pennsylvania's House was at the top of his group's national priority list, along with the Michigan House, now controlled by a GOP margin of 58 to 52, and the Wisconsin Senate, where Democrats now have a one-seat edge. Going into this election, Democrats held majorities in both legislative chambers in 19 states; Republicans control both in 17 states -- the outcome Republicans hope to preserve in Pennsylvania; and different parties control different chambers in 13 states -- the situation Democrats are shooting for here. Nebraska's Legislature is nonpartisan.

The collective decisions of these chambers in next year's remapping will not only influence political power within the states but will be a major influence on which party controls Congress over the next 10 years.

This region of Pennsylvania is a strong case in point.

Right now the congressional delegation in the immediate Pittsburgh metropolitan area has four Democrats: Reps. William Coyne, D-Oakland; Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale; Frank Mascara, D-Washington; and Ron Klink, D-Murrysville. The Democrats' control of one of those seats is in jeopardy in the hard-fought race between state Sen. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, and state Rep. Terry Van Horne, to succeed Klink.

If Republicans manage to win the state House, freezing Democrats out of the redistricting process, and, if Hart were to win, the GOP's first priority in this region would be to work to ensure Hart's re-election. One way to do that would be to shear off some of the heavily Democratic parts of the 4th District, in Beaver and Lawrence counties, and add communities friendlier to Republicans in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

The Republicans would have to decide just how much of a gamble they want to make with the new political geography: Do they carve out one seat with as much GOP strength as possible, or do they take the riskier approach of drawing the lines in such a way that GOP candidates have at least a shot at two winning two seats in the southwest?

To make one nearly secure Republican seat, one obvious strategy would be to draw a district in a C-shape around the city of Pittsburgh, with the open part of the C to the southeast. That would allow the inclusion of most of the region's strongly or marginally Republican communities in one seat.

But one GOP strategist said that there would also be the temptation to draw a more ambitious GOP map. In that scenario, the more Republican communities in the current 4th District could be combined with the northern suburbs that are now part of Coyne's 14th District. Then another district could be shaped to the south of Pittsburgh, including some of the southern suburbs of Allegheny County that are now in Doyle's 18th District, and much of Mascara's 20th District, with the exception of heavily Democratic Fayette County.

That would produce a new district that would still have a Democratic registration majority, but one in which statewide Republican candidates have done well over the last decade.

In the flip side of that strategy, the GOP would try to pack the most heavily Democratic communities in the region, the city of Pittsburgh and much of the Mon Valley, into one district. The resulting seat would be a Democratic fortress, but one that would have siphoned as many Democratic voters as possible away from adjoining, potentially swing districts to the north and south. Such a plan, from a Republican point of view, would have the added benefit of forcing two popular Democratic incumbents, Coyne and Doyle, to run against one another. Under the existing political geography, the GOP has no realistic chance of ever beating either of those incumbents, but a new map could force them to beat on one another.

Of course, that is only one among myriad possibilities. Parts of those two districts could be sent in different directions, potentially forcing different intramural Democratic confrontations: Mascara-Doyle, for example, or, if Van Horne were to win, Coyne-Van Horne. But even if the Democratic Party does win the state House, it would be hard to fashion a pain-free map for the Democrats.

Retirements could avoid the need for primary fights, but, one way or another, one fewer Democrat will be representing this corner of the state two years from now. Another nearby Democrat, the veteran Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Johnstown, is also in a district facing inevitable change in some fashion, given its recent population losses.

Doyle acknowledged the possibility that his district could be combined with another but said: "We're going to see 100 different maps between now and next year, and I'm not going to get any gray hair over it."

He added, however, that a Republican-controlled redistricting could pinch Democrats throughout the state.

"It's not only out here. You look at people like [Reps.] Tim Holden, [D-Reading]; Paul Kanjorski, [D-Wilkes-Barre]; and Joe Hoeffel, [D-Montgomery] -- they all do a good job but you don't have to change those districts too much to make it very difficult for any of them," he said.

Going into tomorrow's balloting, the Pennsylvania delegation is split, 11 Democrats, 10 Republicans.

"If the Republicans have a free hand, you could go from 11 down to four or five," said Rooney.

The stakes are similar in the redrafting of the lines for state House and Senate seats. Unlike Congress, the overall number of seats will stay the same, but their dimensions will change in ways that boost or reduce the power of different communities along with the parties.

In this region, for example, the last decade's population shifts suggest that some legislative seats will migrate away from the city of Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley, which have lost population, and toward communities in the western and northern suburbs that have enjoyed at least modest growth.

Among the seats that the Harrisburg Democrats and Republicans are placing their heaviest logistical bets on are two in Montgomery County. In the 61st District, where the Republican incumbent is retiring, the GOP's Kate Harper is running against Karen Friedman, a Democratic consultant and former television reporter.

Democrats say they see an opportunity to oust a Republican incumbent, Rep. John Fichter, in a nearby Montgomery County seat, an assertion that Drachler scoffed at. The Democratic candidate in that race is Netta Young Hughes.

In Bucks County, in the seat being vacated by Rep. Tom Druce, the Republican just sentenced to jail for running down and killing a pedestrian that he claims he mistook for a sign, Democrat David Hall is running against Katherine Watson, a GOP county official.

In the 83rd District, an open seat in Lycoming County, Republican Steven Cappelli, the mayor of Williamsport, is running against Democrat Joseph Orso, an attorney.

Republicans have targeted Rep. Richard Grucela, a freshman Democrat in the 137th District, in the Lehigh Valley, with former Rep. Len Gruppo, who formerly held the seat for years before he gave it up in an unsuccessful quest to win a state Senate seat.

The only district in the Pittsburgh region in which the Harrisburg organizations have made a significant investment is in the 7th District, in the Shenango Valley, held by Rep. Michael Gruitza, D-Sharon. The Republicans hadn't originally targeted the seat, but they moved it up on their priority list after the news broke that Gruitza was charged with drunken driving. The Republican candidate there is Jack R. Kopen.

The Harrisburg GOP has been running ads against Gruitza on Youngstown TV stations. In recent weeks, the Democratic campaign committee has tried to respond, asking Democrats in safe seats to contribute to Gruitza's defense.

The Harrisburg Republican caucus is also spending money in one Fayette County district they probably don't expect to win.

They've earmarked resources for Lynda Bush's challenge to Rep. Bill DeWeese, the former House speaker who hopes to reclaim the gavel next year.

The decision to aid Bush came after the Democrats encouraged the candidacy of a Philadelphia Democrat who is challenging House Majority Leader John Perzel,

Of the decision to aid Bush, one senior Republican said, "That was a way to say, 'OK, you're going to play hardball, I'm going to return it in spades.' "

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