HARRISBURG -- The long-awaited results of a Chester County state House race, decided yesterday by 23 votes, swung control of the chamber to the Democrats for the first time in more than a decade.
The results dramatically alter Harrisburg's political landscape after four years in which Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, has been forced to bargain with two chambers controlled by the opposite party.
The switch also means that the speaker's gavel will go from Philadelphia Republican John Perzel to Greene County Democrat H. William DeWeese, who barely survived his re-election and now finds himself again near the top of the Harrisburg heap.
Based on the unofficial results of one hard-fought House race in Chester County, "I am absolutely, unequivocally certain that the Democrats will have 102 members in the session starting Jan. 2," Mr. DeWeese said.
If the results of the 156th House District race withstand any potential Republican court challenges, Democrats will have a 102-101 advantage in the new session of the Legislature. It will be the first time since 1994 that Democrats will be in charge of the House.
Chester County officials yesterday tallied about 300 absentee ballots that had been uncounted since the night of Nov. 7 and determined that Democratic candidate Barbara McIlwaine Smith edged GOP candidate Shannon Royer.
The unofficial tally, which still could be challenged in court, put Ms. Smith at 11,614 votes compared with Mr. Royer's 11,591. There were still 11 provisional ballots left to tally but that was not enough to change the outcome, Democrats said.
Before those results were totaled yesterday, tabulation of another close Chester County race, for the 167th District House seat, went in favor of Republican Duane Milne, a West Chester University professor. He defeated Democrat Anne R. Crowley 13,556 to 13,412, according to unofficial results.
House Democratic Campaign Committee Director Dan Wiedemer said most of the provisional ballots were cast by registered Democrats and so he expected Ms. Smith's final victory margin to increase slightly.
Before the absentee ballots were counted yesterday, Mr. Royer had been clinging to a 19-vote lead over Ms. Smith, and Republican officials had hoped he would hang on to victory, but that wasn't the case.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who chaired the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said the GOP has five days to challenge the unofficial results, and then they become official.
House Republican leaders couldn't be reached yesterday.
But happy Democrats wasted no time in doing their victory dance.
"A Democrat has captured yet another key victory in this important election cycle," said Mr. Rendell, who won re-election Nov. 7 and has been looking forward to working with a Democratic-controlled House.
"This victory will change the way business is done in Harrisburg," claimed state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney, adding that the outcome is also a victory "for working families, children and senior citizens."
Yesterday's Democratic victory in the state House was the culmination of significant progress the party made in the Nov. 7 election. It trailed the GOP by a margin of 109-94 in the 2005-06 session, which officially ends tomorrow.
Democrats had high hopes of winning control of the state House this year, given voters' disaffection with President Bush and the war in Iraq and the coattails of the popular Mr. Rendell. Democrats took control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress on Nov. 7.
Republicans will continue to control the state Senate by a 29-21 margin in the next session.
Mr. Frankel said he'll hardly know how to act when his party takes control of the House's agenda.
"Like more than half of my Democratic colleagues, I've never been in the majority," said Mr. Frankel, who was elected in 1998. "It makes all the difference in the world to be able to set the House agenda and not just react to things proposed by Republicans.
"Having a Democratic House working with a Democratic governor will make an enormous difference in the lives of Pennsylvanians."
Mr. Frankel vowed to push for an "urban agenda" to help Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, with aid for mass transit and making health insurance more available and affordable.
Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, said he also wants the House to do more for basic and special education.
Despite his joy, Mr. DeWeese said he is still on guard against a repeat of what happened in late 1994, when Democrat Tom Stish was persuaded to switch to the Republican side. That move turned a 102-101 Democratic edge into a 102-101 Republican victory. Mr. DeWeese, known for his florid language, said he still recalls "the ignominious moment of the Stish apostasy."
Mr. DeWeese had been speaker in 1993-94 but lost the post when Mr. Stish deserted to the GOP.
Republicans haven't ruled out trying to persuade at least one Democrat to switch to their side this time also, which could deny Democrats their slim majority.
Mr. DeWeese conceded there is still "a possibility of mischief" by Republicans to lure one Democrat but thinks the clout of Mr. Rendell and organized labor, along with a "new spirit exuded by Democrats," will prevent such a thing.
He said that if the Democrats hold their slim majority -- "and I am confident we will" -- he will run for speaker Jan. 2. It's unlikely anyone else in his party would challenge him.
Mr. Perzel has held the post since April 2003. He couldn't be reached yesterday to comment on the apparent Democratic takeover.
If Mr. DeWeese becomes speaker, state Rep. Keith McCall, D-Carbon, will likely become the new majority leader, replacing Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.
Mr. DeWeese said one of his top priorities will be providing property tax relief for middle-income homeowners.
The Legislature provided limited tax relief to lower-income senior citizens this year, but many legislators want to do more. That, however, would require raising several billion dollars, either through higher sales taxes, removing the exemption on clothes and food, or increasing the personal income tax.
Mr. DeWeese said he will look at increasing the 6 percent sales tax to either 6.5 percent or 7 percent "and using every nickel to lower property taxes."
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 1-717-787-4254.