HARRISBURG, Pa. – Democrats who reclaimed the Pennsylvania House majority in November and clung to a one-seat margin by sweeping three special elections earlier this year face yet another contest for control of the chamber next week, when voters will fill a vacancy in the Philadelphia suburbs.
At stake in the Delaware County special election is whether freshman Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro will have at least one chamber to aid his agenda going into the final month of budget negotiations. The result could also affect a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion rights that legislative Republicans are one House vote away from putting before voters as a referendum.
The seat became open when Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel resigned in March, a week after a lobbyist accused him by name of sexual harassment.
A win by Republican candidate Katie Ford, a military veteran, school volunteer and behavioral therapist, would likely give the House GOP a 102-101 majority and the power to reclaim control of the legislative agenda and the chamber's voting calendar. Speaker Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia Democrat, has presided over the House since February.
But the Democrat in the race, Heather Boyd, a former congressional and state legislative aide, is running in a district that has given solid margins to Democratic candidates in recent elections. Libertarian Alfe Goodwin, whose campaign focuses on criminal justice reform and fighting homelessness, is also on the ballot.
During a debate between Ford and Boyd that was hosted by WHTM-TV in Harrisburg last week, Ford said she is against having Pennsylvania voters decide the abortion amendment, a Republican-crafted proposal which states that the Pennsylvania Constitution does not guarantee any rights relating to abortion or public funding of abortions. Ford said she is personally opposed to abortion but would not seek to change existing state law.
Boyd's effort to tie Ford to the longstanding Republican effort to ban or further restrict abortion access in Pennsylvania includes an ad in which Shapiro warns that a Republican House majority will move to strip him of veto power over anti-abortion legislation.
Ford has focused her own campaign messaging on the Zabel scandal. She argues that Boyd did not respond sufficiently when she learned of Service Employees International Union lobbyist Andi Perez's account, that Zabel caressed her leg while they discussed legislation outside the Capitol in 2018 and did not stop when she moved away from him.
Zabel told The Associated Press, when he resigned in March, that he had planned to defend himself through the House Ethics Committee but ultimately decided he did not want to continue putting his loved ones through a public ordeal.
“Common sense says that if someone comes to you and says that they're being sexually harassed, you do something about it,” Ford said during the debate. “You don't just let it go.” Boyd responded that she did not endorse or support Zabel after hearing Perez’s account, and while active in the county Democratic Party hierarchy she tried to find someone to run against Zabel but was not successful.
Perez last month endorsed Boyd, saying the candidate had for years respected her request to keep her account regarding Zabel private.
Republicans entered the 2022 election with a 113-90 advantage in the state House, but Democrats flipped a net of 12 seats, barely enough to claim majority status and elect McClinton as speaker.
If Ford wins, and if Republicans hold on to a central Pennsylvania seat in the Sunbury area as widely expected, the chamber will return to GOP control. The House Republican floor leader, Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, was speaker last year but said he no longer wants the job, raising the prospect of a GOP leadership fight while lawmakers work to pass a budget before the state's next fiscal year begins in July.
Even if McClinton retains the speakership after next week's special election, another potential fight for House majority control looms. At least four incumbent Democrats are on the ballot for local positions this year. Rep. John Galloway of Bucks is running for district judge, Rep. Amen Brown for Philadelphia mayor, Rep. Kristine Howard of Chester for common pleas judge and Rep. Sara Innamorato to be Allegheny's next county executive.
If any or all of them win in November, that will create new Democratic vacancies in the House, at least until additional special elections can be scheduled in early 2024.
This story has been updated to correct that McClinton has presided over the House since February.