For the last couple years, being a Philadelphia Democrat in Harrisburg has been a rather disheartening proposition. Gov. Tom Corbett, it was well known, set the legislative agenda; the Republicans who controlled the House and Senate followed it.
The landscape, after last week’s election, might not appear much changed: The GOP ceded no seats in the House, retaining 112 to the Democrats’ 91, and gave up just three Senate seats, meaning it now has a 27-23 advantage over Senate Democrats.
However, Philly senators believe those three seats could mean a drastic transformation in tone for the next two years.
“When we go to the table to negotiate, that gives us incredible leverage,” says Democratic Whip Sen. Anthony Williams, noting that certain votes require two-thirds approval in the Senate. “It’s a big deal, even though we’re not quite in the majority yet.”
Sen. Larry Farnese sees the election — the gains for Democrats in the state Senate and their wins in statewide row offices — as a referendum on Corbett and the Republican legislature. “The people of Pennsylvania loudly said they no longer want to see the extreme, right-wing agenda,” he says. He’s hopeful that Corbett, himself up for re-election in two years, will heed the results as a call for moderation on social issues and painful budget cuts.
“That really sets a tone for Democrats to be able to push back and get a lot of our own agenda passed,” Farnese says.
And what, exactly, might that agenda entail?
“There are things that we all agree on,” Williams says, “and jobs is at the top of that list.” He says that would include a more robust Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which provides matching funds for things like housing developments and supermarkets but has been scaled down since Corbett took office. Farnese mentions a renewal of (environmentally controversial) Delaware River dredging and progress on the massive, long-awaited Southport Marine Terminal. Sen. Shirley Kitchen says she’s looking at renewing programs like an Energy Coordinating Agency weatherization-training project that had lost funding, and helping more home-owners access basic-systems-repair loans. Sen. Mike Stack says he’s focused on long-overdue infrastructure funding, which would generate “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” And those are just the economic issues. Also on the table for this session, at least for Farnese: closing the “Florida loophole” on gun purchases, protecting women’s access to health care and clearing the way for same-sex civil unions.
Whether these progressive efforts will advance is another question, given Republicans’ firm grip on the state House.
“There are two ways this could go: It could go toward moderation or it could go toward gridlock,” Stack says. Still, he’s optimistic that GOP moderates, who were “rolled over” for the past two years, could regain their voice: “The one that’s going to have the hardest time is Gov. Corbett, because he’s going to be out there on the far right, and I think the Senate will move to the center.”
As to the long-term impact of this election, the debate lingers. Williams sees a “Democrat trend line” of gains ahead. But John Kennedy, a political scientist at West Chester University, is dubious: “It’s very similar to when you look back to 1994 [when Republicans picked up many seats]. The Democrats dug a big hole for themselves in ’94, and it took them over a decade to get out of it. They got out of it and then, with one bad year in 2010, they’re back in a big hole.” It could be another epic climb.
On the other hand, Kennedy says, the new outlook “puts a lot of pressure on a number of Republican senators who are going to be up for re-election in 2014,” including several in Philly’s suburbs. That’s because just a few Republicans stepping out of line could derail hotly debated legislation, like privatizing liquor sales or enacting school-voucher programs. However, the new state Senate district maps — now in the hands of the state Supreme Court — won’t likely help Democrats any. “Some of our seats that are strong Democratic seats right now could be crippled,” Farnese admits. “I’m optimistic about what’s going to happen in two years, but I realize that we could be in a position where we’re not only trying to gain some seats, but we will also be vigorously defending some seats.”