Mailings from Pa. incumbents to potential new constituents under fire
Army veteran and Republican state House candidate Josh Lang can point to a four-page glossy example of what he calls an incumbent's advantage.
His opponent, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, sent a newsletter to constituents in the 78th District whom he doesn't represent — yet.
“It's totally unfair,” said Lang, who is running a primary challenge against Topper. “It really puts an uneven balance on the race.”
Millions of Pennsylvanians will be in new districts during this year's elections. After the approval of redrawn legislative district boundaries last year, the state ethics commission cleared incumbents in the House to send taxpayer-funded legislative mailings to voters in reconfigured districts, on requests for advice from lawmakers.
Gene Stilp, a longtime state government activist and Democratic House candidate in central Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against House and Senate leaders and the ethics commission in late March. The suit alleges the commission erred in its decision that newsletters do not provide a “private pecuniary benefit” to incumbents.
Stilp said the newsletter decision amounts to “organized theft” in the “incumbent protection program.” Lawmakers, he said, should not use taxpayer resources to get their names out to voters.
“Everyone who gets in there wants to stay in there,” Stilp said. “They're all tied into one mentality of getting re-elected.”
Topper took office on Feb. 10 in a special election victory after the death of longtime Rep. Dick Hess in September.
Several weeks later, he mailed a newsletter introducing himself to constituents and explaining the boundary shifts, among other topics. Given the special election and a long cycle of legislative redistricting, Topper said he wanted to inform old and new residents of the 78th.
“Under my unique circumstances, it was very important for people to know who their representative was at that moment, and what district they would be a part of come the new election,” he said.
He disagreed that mailers give an unfair advantage and chalked up such assertions to the nature of campaigns.
“A lot of people will grasp for anything out there,” Topper said.
Every 10 years, the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission is charged with drawing district boundaries based on population shifts in census data. The state Supreme Court must approve the new lines. The court in 2012 rejected the commission's first round of legislative maps, for dividing up too many counties and municipalities among multiple districts. It approved a second try.
After court approval, the state constitution requires that officials run legal advertisements in at least one newspaper per district announcing the changes. The Department of State spent more than $1.5 million on legal ads between the first and second round.
Though unmentioned in the state constitution, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission website provides interactive maps that enable users to compare district lines to see how boundaries shifted, or download statewide maps.
Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, said about 95 percent of his district stayed the same. But he sent his spring newsletter, with a front-page focus on transportation projects, to 44th District constituents and future ones.
“Is somebody concerned that too much information to constituents is a bad thing?” he said. “I could see an opponent saying, ‘He had the opportunity because of the ethics commission ruling, to mail something to you and he decided not to.' ”
Redistricting placed more than 3 million Pennsylvanians in different House districts, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans. He said some lawmakers, but not all, sent newsletters to constituents in the new districts. A newsletter can cost between $3,000 and $5,000, he said, paid for using legislative accounts.
Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, said legislators from both parties sought ethics commission advice to clarify how they could disseminate news about redistricting. From fall through spring, 71 House Democrats sent at least one mailing to “new” areas of their districts, he said.
House rules ban any mailings 60 days before a primary, a threshold reached on March 20.
“Updating constituents about state programs, services and developments on issues is a pretty basic part of any legislator's job,” Patton said. “Communicating by mail helps to inform people about things that don't necessarily make the evening news or the local paper.”
In the Senate, new district boundaries took effect when the court approved the maps. In the House, they take effect Dec. 1. Senators got approval in May from then-Chief Clerk Russ Faber to inform constituents by mail or meetings.
Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said though Stilp criticizes lawmakers for reaching out to future constituents, they might otherwise be chided for failing to do so.
“It's a balancing act,” Arneson said. “Most members try to do it in a responsible way.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.