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Many Pennsylvania House races one-sided affairs

| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, 6:15 p.m.
State Rep. Rick Saccone speaks with students from Vern Montessori School at the Scottdale Public Library Feb. 12.
Paul Paterra | The Independent-Observer
State Rep. Rick Saccone speaks with students from Vern Montessori School at the Scottdale Public Library Feb. 12.
AJ Boni of Perry Township is the Democratic candidate for the 52nd Legislative District.
AJ Boni of Perry Township is the Democratic candidate for the 52nd Legislative District.
Ryan Warner
Ryan Warner
Lisa Stout-Bashioum is the Democratic challenger in the 39th Legislative District.
Lisa Stout-Bashioum is the Democratic challenger in the 39th Legislative District.

Most Pennsylvania voters don't have to wait until Election Day to learn who will represent them in the state House. One look at a ballot tells them.

All 203 seats of the House of Representatives are up for grabs Nov. 4, and 105 candidates are unopposed, guaranteeing victory to an incumbent or newcomer.

“This is not what we want to see in a democracy — an unopposed candidate,” said Philip Harold, associate dean of the School of Education and Social Sciences at Robert Morris University in Moon. “We want to see competition.”

This year, the number of unopposed candidates reached a 10-year high. The past five cycles had 96, 77, 94, 55 and 88, according to the Department of State. Reasons for uncontested races vary, sometimes based on the makeup of the district or past election results, Harold said.

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, said competition is less likely in partisan-heavy districts.

“Oftentimes, you tend to see the primaries are the main electoral competition,” she said.

Some districts in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where Republicans are outnumbered by 4-to-1 or more have lone Democrats running. In south-central counties such as Cumberland, Perry and Franklin, Republicans run unopposed with a voter edge in the thousands.

Some of that makeup is a product of redistricting, Brown said. House and Senate districts have new boundary lines, approved by the state Supreme Court in 2013. Members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission included the four caucus leaders and a fifth member chosen by the GOP legislative majority. This process can evoke “gerrymandering,” or partisan-favored districts, Brown said, by either party in power in many states.

Political parties spend their resources where they might be most effective when backing candidates, Harold said. The cost and public scrutiny of campaigns can deter would-be candidates. “You're asking a lot of a person to run,” he said.

The House elects members representing approximately 62,573 constituents every two years. Members receive a base salary of about $84,000, with annual cost-of-living raises. This session, the House has 111 Republicans, 91 Democrats and one vacant seat.

Western Pennsylvania has 24 uncontested races and 19 two-candidate contests. One of the latter pits two first-time candidates against each other for an empty seat; in another, a two-term Republican seeks to hold onto a Democratic-majority district.

52nd Legislative District

This seat, spanning Fayette and Westmoreland counties, opened when Rep. Deb Kula, D-Uniontown, decided to run for state Senate.

A.J. Boni, a Perry Township commissioner and volunteer assistant fire chief, is the Democratic candidate. Ryan Warner, a past project manager and stakeholder in a family-owned logging business, is the Republican nominee.

For Boni, running is a way to stop unfunded mandates from Harrisburg hamstringing communities. Costly laws put burden taxpayers, he said.

“I'm hoping to be able to go to Harrisburg and stand up for my volunteer fire departments, stand up for local municipalities,” he said.

Boni, 46, is married to Susanne; their daughter Alexis is 15. He earned the nomination in a three-way primary in May.

Warner is a first-time candidate who says boosting the regional economy is a priority.

“I want to prove to the next generation there's opportunity to stay here and the opportunity to have a job here,” he said.

Warner, 31, lives with wife Leslie, daughter Paloma, 6, and son Ben, 5 months.

Both candidates said they will not take per diems, the flat-rate daily allowances to cover lawmakers' expenses.

39th Legislative District

This contest matches a Republican incumbent against a Democratic school director.

The district represented by Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, covers the southern portion of Allegheny County and a northern slice of Washington County. It has a slight Democratic registration edge.

“People vote for the person, not necessarily the party,” Saccone said. “Otherwise, I wouldn't be in this seat.”

Saccone, 56, said his priorities are reforming the state's pension systems, with a nearly $50 billion unfunded liability, and addressing sky-high property taxes. Both are long-term issues. “I will keep fighting until we get those issues across the goal line,” he said.

Challenger Lisa Stout-Bashioum is aligned with the Campaign for a Fresh Start, a political action committee coordinating with Democratic campaigns.

Stout-Bashioum, 53, a mother of six with experience in tourism promotion, said increasing education funding is her priority. She entered the race when new district lines encompassed where she lives in Somerset.

“I thought it was a good opportunity for the Democrats to have a voice, a conservative Democrat who I think can relate to the working-class people,” said Stout-Bashioum, a Bentworth school director whose father, J. Barry Stout, was a longtime state senator.

“He really taught me you do the best you can do for the people you represent in every decision you make,” she said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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