Meadville Tribune

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January 4, 2014

Redistricting: County changes, retirements get races going early

HARRISBURG — Democratic state Reps. Frank Burns and Gary Haluska jointly organized a food drive three months ago to help needy residents in Cambria County. Now they are preparing to run against each other in the May 20 primary for the same seat in the Legislature.

Haluska resorted to a sports metaphor, saying that he hopes they can wage a competitive campaign without hard feelings.

“You play the game and shake hands when you’re done,” he said. “May the best man win.”

Burns and Haluska are one of four pairs of Democrats thrust into contested races matching incumbents versus incumbents. The others are in Scranton, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Redistricting and vacancies created by retirements stand to make the 2014 election more competitive than most. They also could affect the balance of power in the General Assembly where Republicans control both chambers — by a margin of 27 to 23 seats in the Senate, and 110 to 92 seats, with a vacancy, in the House.

Redistricting means the northwestern Pennsylvania district now served by Republican Rep. Michele Brooks will cover portions of four western Pennsylvania counties — Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Lawrence.

Brooks announced Wednesday that she will seek the nomination to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Robbins. He is one of five Senators who’ve announced they will not seek re-election.

That means the races for two of the three legislative districts in Mercer County will be wide open — as Brooks runs for Senate and Republican Rep. Dick Stevenson retires at the end of the year, as well. Stevenson is one of 11 pending retirements in the House.

Also running for Robbins’ seat is Republican Rep. Greg Lucas of Crawford and Erie counties, who announced his intentions Tuesday. Redistricting eliminated Lucas’ district; he would have faced Democrat Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie County, to stay in the state House.

Shifts in population are driving many district boundary changes, as rural and inner-city areas lose residents while suburban portions of eastern Pennsylvania grow rapidly. The Cambria County boundary shift comes as the 74th District was moved to Chester County in suburban Philadelphia.

The consolidation of Democratic districts comes despite a growing gap between the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state. A decade ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 500,000. By 2012, that advantage was more than 1 million.

Democrats likely will do well in areas where the population is growing and new districts are created, said Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus. So while the redistricting may be bad for individual lawmakers, it does not stand to harm either major party, he said.

“The process is more bipartisan than most people think,” Patton said. Legislative districts are drawn by a commission of four legislative leaders from the two major parties, plus a chairman appointed by the courts.

That hasn’t stopped critics from trying to reform the process. Late last year, House Democrats introduced language to create a non-partisan commission for drawing legislative maps. Their effort failed on a party-line vote.

Shifting boundaries and candidates moving to capitalize on vacancies are liable to make the coming days confusing for voters who pay only passing attention to politics, Haluska said.

Lawmakers can use legislative dollars to pay for mailings to introduce themselves to residents who are added to their districts, he said. That means some people could get introductions to both Haluska and Burns.

“They could get a mailing from me one day and one from Frank on the next day,” Haluska said.

Haluska has been a state representative in the 73rd Legislative District since 1995. Burns began representing the neighboring 72nd District in 2009.

Burns said he has not made a final decision about whether to run against Haluska or move into a neighboring district to challenge someone else. He said he's leaning toward staying put and challenging a colleague he considers a “good friend.”

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

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