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Pennsylvania

Political frictions dissuade candidates for open seats in Pa. Legislature

| Monday, April 11, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Retiring state Rep. Nick Kotik said a legislative session in Harrisburg now feels like his own version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Each day the fiscally conservative Democrat wakes up and goes through the same routine: Shower, get dressed, go to the state Capitol and get voted down.

“The majority party votes you down on just about every issue you promote,” said Kotik about contending with a 35-seat Republican advantage in the House.

After three or four days of that routine, he goes home to Coraopolis for a few days before returning to Harrisburg to repeat the whole thing.

“It kind of wears you down to a point, mentally,” said Kotik, 65.

A decade after a quarter of the Legislature changed hands following the unpopular middle-of-the-night pay raise vote in 2005, another sizable group of state lawmakers is hanging up its Capitol ID badges. Kotik is among 18 lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate — not seeking re-election this year.

Voters will have fewer choices to replace those outgoing members in the April 26 primary election compared to the 2006 primary, records show.

Election records show an average of five candidates ran for every open seat in the General Assembly in 2006.

In contrast, each open seat this year averages just three candidates. Three races list only one candidate, all but assuring that person ultimately will be sworn in as a state lawmaker.

“With all the problems ... trying to get a state budget passed, you would think that would bring out more candidates,” said Kotik. “You'd think people would say, ‘You're all incompetent,' (so) I'm going to run.' ”

But running for office presents a host of challenges, some old and some new, said political analysts and party leaders.

While several of those not seeking re-election this year are running for a different office, at least a half dozen have said publicly that the bitter partisanship in Harrisburg is driving them from the Statehouse.

They cite an unwillingness to compromise, a sense of distrust among members and frustration that nothing seems to get done.

The 2015-16 state budget, more than nine months late, was approved just last week after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf allowed a Republican-backed spending plan to become law by default, without his signature. And a companion bill that directs how funding is distributed is still disputed.

When 17-term state Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, announced his retirement in January, he told the Tribune-Review that lawmakers had lost any sense of compromise.

“In a representative democracy, that is the crucial element to make this all click,” Daley said. “I have never seen so much hate. It's terrible on the floor.”

Party officials agree the level of hostility in Harrisburg has repelled many would-be candidates.

“I think a lot of people just don't want to get involved with the mess in Pennsylvania politics,” said Lorraine Petrosky, chair of the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee. “The obstructionism has probably hit its peak, and there's no more trust because of it.”

Sen. Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland County, said the climate is far more confrontational now than a decade ago.

“We have (Republican Sen. Scott Wagner) from York saying they're ‘purging' the House and Senate. That's frightening to me,” Vance said.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, who was elected in the 2006 election, said his decision not to run for re-election is partly because of the lack of civility and an inability to find compromise.

“I can tell you there's a whole lot more ‘gotcha politics,' ” Vereb said.

Under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, Vereb said, the GOP could hammer him on an issue, then sit down and negotiate.

“The reality is we should be more focused on selling our views, and after we sell that, we should be prepared ... to negotiate on just about everything,” he said.

Petrosky and other Democrats also cite redistricting, which was controlled by Republicans after the 2010 census, as creating districts that consolidated political support for one party over another.

“It's been a deterrent to finding good candidates,” Petrosky said. “They think, ‘Why bother? I don't have a chance.' ”

Legislative district boundaries are drawn by lawmakers according to population shifts, but lines tend to favor the party in power.

Republicans downplayed redistricting as a factor this year, instead citing other long-standing barriers as contributing to a declining number of candidates.

For many people, the job simply takes them away from their family too much, said Michael Korns, chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee.

Candidates spend time campaigning to get elected and, once in office, typically attend evening events in their districts. This is in addition to time in Harrisburg when the Legislature is in session.

For others, negative campaigning scares them away, Korns said.

“We see more and more negative, ugly campaigning going on,” he said. “A lot of people, they don't want their kids to see them being attacked.”

But G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the extreme polarization both in the Legislature — and among voters — cannot be discounted. There are fewer pragmatists today than there were in 2006, he said.

“The polarization has weakened personal relationships. They don't like each other, and they don't trust each other,” Madonna said. “Now if the other party wins, they feel the future of the republic is at stake.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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