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Retiring state lawmakers to take community clout with them

| Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Rep. Peter J. Daley (D) serving the 49th Legislative District, helped procure investments for the construction of California Technology Park, a 138-acre site of land which is located in the Borough of California in the southeastern corner of Washington County.

The region has lost two of its most senior state representatives in what one political expert predicted could be a trend of veteran lawmakers leaving office and taking the clout they wielded for their districts with them.

State Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, announced he will not seek an 11th term in office.

Local political leaders said Harhai's retirement, coupled with the announced retirement of longtime state Rep. Peter Daley, D-Washington/Fayette, earlier this month, will mean the loss of the two lawmakers' hefty political influence that often translated into public dollars for the economically struggling communities they represent.

“When you lose senior members, the fallout is a loss of clout,” said Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Harhai, 61, declined to comment and abruptly ended a telephone call when asked Wednesday by the Tribune-Review about his decision to retire.

The only indication of his motivation came in a news release stating that the changing political climate and partisanship in Harrisburg prompted him to retire at the end of the year when his term expires.

“In the last several years there's been little compromise, cooperation and collaboration. It's become extremely frustrating,” Harhai said. “It's just become harder to reach any consensus, as proven by the current protracted budget debate. I weighed this decision carefully before concluding that it was time to script the end of this chapter in my public service life. It's time.”

His decision was made after political support from some city leaders in his hometown of Monessen had eroded.

Mayor Lou Mavrakis, a Democrat, publicly supported Harhai's Republican challenger two years ago and openly discussed his opposition to Harhai in interviews with the Trib. Mavrakis did not return calls Wednesday seeking comments about Harhai's retirement.

But Harhai still had support from city voters: Election results in 2014 showed he easily won Monessen, which continues to remain heavily Democratic. Harhai struggled in other parts of the district en route to his narrow re-election when he defeated Republican Tom Logan of Hempfield by just 287 votes in a newly constructed district that what was once a Democratic stronghold.

The district includes Monessen, Rostraver, Sewickley, South Huntingdon, Mt. Pleasant, Jeannette, East Huntingdon, Belle Vernon, West Newton and parts of Hempfield.

The district was once based almost exclusively in the Monessen area and for more than two decades was represented by former House Speaker James Manderino, a Democrat from a powerful, well-connected political family, who died in office in 1989, less than a year after being elected speaker.

Daley, who has served 17 consecutive terms representing parts of Fayette and Washington counties in what has traditionally been a heavily Democratic district, also blamed political unrest in Harrisburg as a key reason for his decision to retire at year's end.

Harhai and Daley are part of a large group of incumbent lawmakers expected to retire at year's end, Madonna said. He suggested there could be as many as two dozen retirements of incumbents statewide.

And the potential voter backlash related to the ongoing legislative gridlock in Harrisburg, evidenced by the ongoing budgetary stalemate, could lead to the largest political turnover since 2006, when more than 50 incumbents either left office or were ousted on Election Day, he said.

The state House currently has 118 Republicans and 82 Democrats. Three seats are vacant and will be filled by special elections in March, including one in Westmoreland County.

“There seems to be a real undercurrent of discontent right now,” Madonna said.

Marcel Groen, chairman of the state's Democratic Committee, said that while the loss of Harhai and Daley is troubling to the party's efforts to regain control of the House, he is confident the party will retain the Mon Valley-based seats.

“We're in the process of getting candidates, and we will find really good candidates. The vision of the party is to keep those seats and to win seats in more moderate areas,” Groen said.

Democratic Commissioner Ted Kopas said Westmoreland County will feel the loss of Harhai.

“It's always a blow to lose someone with seniority,” Kopas said. “Ted was always attentive to our needs.”

Meanwhile, Republicans see the retirements as an opportunity.

Westmoreland County GOP Chairman Michael Korns said the Republican's near miss in 2014 only strengthened the party's efforts to win Harhai's 58th District seat this year. The party, which more than a decade ago only held only one elected seat in Harrisburg, now is the dominant force, having four of the county's six state representatives in its ranks.

Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 edge in voter registration in the district.

“We came exceptionally close to winning that seat two years ago,” Korns said. “It's an opportunity. There are a lot of Democrats in that district who have shown a willingness to pull the lever for a Republican.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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