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Threatening notes. Defamatory leaflets. Old grudges. Well-funded political action committees. Pre-emptive accusations of fraud. This primary season has it all. So when (maybe) 20 percent of us show up to vote on April 24, it's worth at least trying to pay attention. Though the Pennsylvania primary has dropped out of national headlines since GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's concession, important statewide races remain in play. And among state House races, in addition to the annual incumbent-vs.-unknown matchups, there are three special elections. (In the 197th District, a candidate named Gary Williams is running to fill the slot vacated by Jewell Williams, who left the post to become Philly's sheriff; Jewell's daughter Jewel, meanwhile, is looking for a primary win. If it's confusing, the theory goes, it may be by design.) Here's a round-up of races worth watching — and voting on — come Tuesday.
The GOP Free-for-All: U.S. Senate
Steve Welch, the candidate endorsed by the Pennsylvania Republican Party, is running a television ad that characterizes him as a "strong conservative" in the vein of Rick Santorum, Gov. Tom Corbett and Sen. Pat Toomey. Welch, however, is a strange breed of strong conservative: The former Democrat voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, and allegedly held a fundraiser for former congressman and Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak (who went on to lose the general election to arch-conservative Toomey).
In this Tea Party era, surprisingly, former Democrats dominate the Republican race: Candidate Tom Smith, a coal-company millionaire from Armstrong County, held local elected posts as a Democrat until 2010. The winner of the primary will face Democratic senator and political scion Bob Casey, a hard-to-beat candidate the state's big-name Republicans didn't want to risk losing to.
"None of the high-profile Republicans decided to throw their hat in the ring for this nomination, [so] it left a wide-open field," says Christopher Borick, a Muhlenberg College political-science professor. "Anybody who wanted to seize the opportunity and try to secure this nomination felt they might have a chance." Two of those people, Welch and Smith, have a lot of their own money to spend on the campaign. Former Berks County state Rep. Sam Rohrer, the only other candidate generally considered to have a shot at winning, does not.
Rohrer headed the state chapter of the Koch-brothers-funded Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity and has strong conservative backing. Interestingly, the same Libertarian philosophy Rohrer supports allows basically unlimited campaign contributions from the wealthy — the sort of spending that has undermined his campaign.
Republican turnout will likely plummet now that Rick Santorum is out of the race for the presidency. This could actually benefit Rohrer, who likely has the votes of many Santorum supporters, because moderate Republicans in the Philly suburbs who would have voted en masse to block Santorum might stay home.
Casey, a household name in the state, will have a strong advantage in November regardless of which Republican wins. Polls show the vast majority of Republican voters still have not made up their minds. But Casey's fortunes in part depend on how Pennsylvanians feel about President Barack Obama come November. "If Casey goes down it would be largely a referendum on his association with Barack Obama," says Borick. "If Barack Obama wins here, I don't think it will matter a lot who the Republican candidate for the Senate is." —D.D.
The Race to the Top: Pennsylvania Attorney General
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy is spending a lot of money to convince Democratic voters that he, not former Lackawanna County Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Kane, is the true Democrat in the race for attorney general. Both candidates seem to agree on pretty much everything. And both oppose legislation that would require an ultrasound — for some pregnancies, the much-maligned transvaginal ultrasound — before an abortion. But Murphy has accused Kane of not opposing it strongly enough: He says he alone has pledged not to defend the bill if elected, calling it unconstitutional.
"I think it's more a matter of personality and electability," says Michael Morrill, executive director of the progressive group Keystone Progress. "They will both stand up for reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and both candidates have also stated that they will be active in pursuing corporate malfeasance."
Meanwhile, Kane is running as a "prosecutor not a politician," and has criticized Murphy, a former military prosecutor, for his lack of experience in Pennsylvania court rooms. Murphy has, however, articulated one significant difference with Kane: He wants to transform the attorney general's office into something more akin to New York's muscular outfit, which aggressively prosecutes corporate wrongdoing.
"With a lot of public dissatisfaction with Wall Street and corporate greed, he's got an issue that might resonate," says Borick, the political science professor.
The two are fighting it out for high-profile endorsements, and former President Bill Clinton last week paid back a political debt to Kane (who supported Hillary Clinton's presidential bid) with an appearance in the Philly suburbs. Kane also earned an endorsement from Emily's List, which funds the campaigns of pro-choice women, in an election season when Democrats nationwide are making political hay of Republican opposition to birth control and abortion. But Murphy, a Northeast Philly native and Obama ally, got the nod from the Pennsylvania National Organization for Women — along with the AFL-CIO and presidential adviser David Axelrod.
The post of attorney general is a powerful one and can raise a candidate's profile for higher office. Gov. Corbett, who presided over the BonusGate and ComputerGate prosecutions of state legislators, used the position as just such a stepping stone. Former Attorney General D. Michael Fisher did the same in 2002, though he lost in the general gubernatorial election to Ed Rendell. But no Democrat has become attorney general since it first became an elected position in 1980. The winner will face Republican Cumberland County D.A. David Freed in November. Former state Auditor General and U.S. Rep. Don Bailey is running as an independent. —D.D.
The Rematch: 180th Pennsylvania House District
In addition to being the state's only Latino-represented House district, the 180th (in North Philly, east of Broad Street) has also had the distinction of being one of the dirtiest when it comes to political and para-political vote-getting tactics, with allegations of fraud perpetually marring elections there.
Last time around, Rep. Angel Cruz bested challenger and former Philly policeman Jonathan Ramos by just 124 votes. But it wasn't pretty. Cruz was slapped with allegations of voter intimidation, including a claim by Ramos that Cruz supporters barred him from a polling place. Ramos, meanwhile, was caught up in a scandal when politically connected Deputy City Commissioner Renee Tartaglione Matos resigned after allegedly violating ethics rules by fundraising for him.
Ramos is confident that the tide has turned. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who last election threw her support behind Cruz, is now backing Ramos; he says he also has the support of state Sen. Tina Tartaglione, the municipal workers' union D.C. 47, the Fraternal Order of Police and others. He says that working together with other legislators, he'll be able to bring unity and progress to a community that he now equates with a dysfunctional family, with mom and dad working out of sync: "That disunity reflects in the community. I want to bring a coalition of our leadership to work together." Ramos says he wants to see legislators pool their resources to bring police pressure to North Philly drug corridors, to help bring ex-offenders back into the workforce and to encourage urban renewal without displacement.
As for Cruz, he tends to vote like a Philly Democrat. But as to what his agenda is for next term, he didn't respond to requests for comment, and he doesn't appear to have a campaign website. Maybe, this time Ramos just wants it more. —S.M.
The Inside Job: 182nd Pennsylvania House District
Rep. Babette Josephs has served this Center City District for almost three decades, and she's faced her share of challengers. What makes Brian Sims different? The answer, she says, isn't that he's vying to become Pennsylvania's first openly gay state representative, or that he's snagged endorsements from Equality PA and Liberty City. "The difference is he was in a position of trust with me and he betrayed it," says Josephs, who had named Sims her campaign treasurer, a position of some prominence. "He linked his name with my good name, and then when he decided it didn't serve him anymore he threw me under the bus."
Yet Sims, a lawyer and motivational speaker, has gotten more buzz than most rookies taking on Harrisburg veterans. A video of Josephs initially blowing off requests for a debate got some attention, and she was concerned enough to distribute mailers describing Sims as a would-be Republican tool. Josephs says the reason she didn't want to debate was simple: "He has no different issues than I have, so what are we going to talk about? ... We both believe in gay marriage. He's going to say I didn't work for it hard enough; I'm going to say he didn't work for it at all."
Sims doesn't dispute that he and Josephs share similar outlooks. His argument is, "She's not a legislator that introduces bills." It's not her voting record that's the problem, it's her inability to get bills passed, he says. He says her rhetoric — like calling female anti-abortion Republicans "men with breasts" — hasn't helped her work toward compromise.
Sims wants to work on "gravel-and-bridges"-type projects, and he'll "do it through building relationships." Still, many Philly Democrats have found even gravel-and-bridges initiatives stymied in Harrisburg. Josephs says she's fighting for her constituents, but it's an uphill battle. "Every Democrat on the planet knows if you get a vote from a Republican, you have to give a vote. So what vote is he going to give? Is it women's civil rights? Is it women's health? Is it social-justice issues? Is it the education budget? Is it privatizing schools through vouchers? What's the vote he's preparing to give up?" —S.M.
The Close Call: 186th Pennsylvania House District
Whether you've been paying attention or not, the 186th (which includes Southwest Philly and Point Breeze) is extra-confusing this year. For one thing, both a Democratic primary and a special election to fill the seat vacated by now-Councilman Kenyatta Johnson will take place on April 24. For another, it's tough to tell the difference, on a policy level, between the candidates. And, while there are apparent frontrunners, more than one candidate has captured potentially significant local endorsements.
So, let's parse it out. The special election, which fills the gap between now and January's inauguration, is down to former state Rep. Harold James, the presumed winner and a Democrat, and Barbara Hankinson, a nominal Republican. More interesting is the primary, which comes down to Jordan Harris, Philly's former Youth Commissioner, and Damon Roberts, a zoning lawyer and two-time candidate for City Council.
Harris has the endorsement of Johnson, state Sens. Anthony Williams and Larry Farnese and District Attorney Seth Williams, and the backing of well-funded, pro-school-voucher political action committees. Roberts says he has support from Rep. James Roebuck and City Council members Wilson Goode Jr., Jannie Blackwell and Curtis Jones.