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Turzai easily wins Orie's House seat

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By James O'Toole and Edward G. Robinson III, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Republican Mike Turzai was the comfortable winner over Thomas Dancison in yesterday's special election to fill a vacant North Hills seat in the state House.

The victory, by the impressive if not unexpected margin of more than 3-to-1, was a political resurrection for the Bradford Woods lawyer, who was buried in a landslide in a well-funded attempt to oust former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink from his 4th District congressional seat in 1998.

The outcome holds significance beyond the borders of the 28th District as it adds a crucial additional vote to the Republican Party's slender margin of control of the state House.

"I'm very appreciative and humbled because these friends and supporters have felt that they would like to have me as their next representative," a jubilant Turzai said shortly after the polls closed. "I don't want to let them down."

Turzai captured every precinct in the district, which includes Marshall, McCandless, Pine, Richland, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park and part of Hampton.

The contest was the last political domino in a process set in motion with Klink's decision, after his victory over Turzai, to relinquish his U.S. House seat to pursue an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. Former state Sen., now U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, took advantage of that opening to capture Klink's former congressional seat.

That, in turn, created an opportunity for former Rep. Jane Orie to claim Hart's Senate seat in another special election earlier this year. Orie's victory over Jim Rooney set the stage for yesterday's contest for her House seat.

Turzai, 41, a Notre Dame graduate who practices law with the Downtown firm of Houston Harbaugh, captured the district with pledges to promote tax relief for businesses and residential property owners.

He also called for infrastructure improvements to promote managed growth in the booming North Hills suburbs.

Dancison, 31, echoed Turzai's calls for property tax relief. The candidates also joined in criticisms of the county's recent property reassessment.

The Democrat also criticized the provision of public money to fund new stadiums and a convention center. Turzai, however, described himself as a reluctant supporter of the use of Regional Asset District funds for those projects.

Turzai's generally positive campaign offered a marked contrast to the scorched-earth tactics he pursued in 1998 in a challenge noted for his relentless, acerbic criticisms of the incumbent.

The aggressive campaign backfired with many voters and Turzai himself spent the final days of the campaign apologizing for its tone. Describing the lessons he had learned between the campaigns for the U.S. and now the state House, Turzai said, "Stay positive; be yourself; work hard [and] have a positive message."

The victory built on the Republican's cultivation of community and political ties through his work as a Bradford Woods councilman and activism within his party.

The 28th District is one of the more reliable Republican districts in the state, but the GOP took no chances, vastly outspending the underdog Democrat.

Turzai will be sworn in in Harrisburg sometime in the next two weeks. His entry into the House chamber may receive a more than customary welcome.

The Republican leaders of the House are considering a renewed legislative challenge to the Democratic majority of Allegheny County Council, which has sole power to draft the new districts that council members will be elected from for the next 10 years.

Last week, the House GOP came within one vote of passing a measure that would have shifted redistricting power from the council majority to a bipartisan commission.

Turzai's election improves the GOP's chances of passing the redistricting legislation, which has already been approved in the state Senate. Democrats have warned of the likelihood of another attempt to enact the measure, which Gov. Tom Ridge has said he would sign if it came to his desk.

Republican officials in Harrsburg insisted yesterday, however, that no decisions have been made on whether to call House members back from their summer recess to deal with the redistricting issue.

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