Voters north of Pittsburgh finally turn the page on former state Sen. Jane Orie Tuesday in a special election pitting a three-term state representative from Shaler against a health care consultant from McCandless.
Ms. Orie took office in mid-2001 and served the 40th Senate district for 11 years before a jury ruled in March that she improperly used her state office employees to run her political campaigns. She resigned in May, triggering the special race to fill the seat through 2014.
Democrat Sharon Brown, 59, last ran in an unsuccessful attempt to oust state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, in 2010. The GOP candidate is state Rep. Randy Vulakovich, 62, of Shaler, a former township policeman who replaced another convicted state legislator, Jeff Habay, in the House in 2007.
The candidates adhere to party orthodoxy on most issues: Mr. Vulakovich favors the state's voter ID rules and fully privatizing liquor stores, is wary of gun control efforts and against abortion. Ms. Brown has the opposite view on all those issues.
"There has been no single case of voter fraud that has been identified," Ms. Brown said of the bill Mr. Vulakovich joined his GOP colleagues in approving this year, saying it would largely hurt women, low-income and senior voters. Of fraud, Mr. Vulakovich said, "I'm an old cop. There's a lot of things that happen that we never find out that happened, that we know goes on all the time," though he concedes he didn't investigate an election fraud case in 27 years in law enforcement.
Mr. Vulakovich opposes efforts -- supported by many police chiefs -- to require the reporting of lost or stolen guns and said existing gun-tracking laws are sufficient. "All judges need to do is enforce them. We have plenty of laws on the books," he said. Ms. Brown says, "There definitely has to be some kind of restriction, or else we'll have another example of Aurora," referring to the fatal movie theater shootings last month in Colorado.
Ms. Brown said she worried how privatizing state-run liquor stores would affect employees -- which is a common theme among Democrats with ties to organized labor -- while Mr. Vulakovich said he would consider pension changes to protect employees close to retirement, using funds from the sale of store leases.
Ms. Brown is vague on transit and transportation infrastructure funding, saying she would support increased vehicle registration fees (proposed by a gubernatorial task force a year ago) but other revenues "need to be looked at." Her opponent also said he could support such fee increases, and had a four-point plan for funding public transit that considers transportation in rural counties, union concessions and increased funding from Allegheny County government.
In the wake of the Orie trial, Mr. Vulakovich has made much of his support of government reform efforts, embodied in his refusal to take per-diems or a state-owned car, which is repeated in his TV spots and mailers. Democrats note he did take some per-diems upon first taking office in 2007 and used state cars through 2008. "The issue I think is the advertising," said Ms. Brown. "Things were not taken when indeed they were." Ms. Brown said she did not know if she would accept per-diems or a state car herself.
Mr. Vulakovich said he had to cut through long-standing Harrisburg red tape to cut off the perks. "If somebody wants to take cheap shots because of two months here and then taking a car for two years, let them do it," he responds. "People are much more smarter than that and literally it just offends me that they try to cheapen something."
Due to the short time-frame between Ms. Orie's resignation and the Aug. 7 special election, the two candidates were picked by officials from their respective political parties rather than through primary battles. Before running for the Senate seat, Mr. Vulakovich was largely known for a bill allowing the state to intervene in the UPMC-Highmark contract dispute, and for several weeks through the spring former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart of Bradford Woods was considered the frontrunner for the GOP nod. Mr. Vulakovich's name surfaced a week before the party's June 16 vote, with a push from his ally, Mr. Turzai.
He initially had "no ambition" to join the Senate, he said, but "here was a whole lot of people locally and up in Harrisburg who approached me and said that position would be a good position for me to be in. ... The thing that pushed me over was you can probably get more done being one of 50 than you can being one of 203," he said, referring to the number of legislators in each chamber.
Ms. Brown's experience was similar. Two days before Democratic officials in Allegheny and Butler counties were due to tap a candidate, Ms. Orie's 2010 opponent, Dan DeMarco of Ross, announced he would not run. "I was asked to [run]," Ms. Brown said. "After talking to a number of [party] individuals we decided this would be the right decision to make."
The district comprises Hampton, Marshall, McCandless, Pine, Richland, Ross, Shaler, West Deer, Bradford Woods, Etna, Franklin Park and West View in Allegheny County, plus Adams, Buffalo, Clinton, Connoquenessing, Cranberry, Forward, Jackson, Middlesex, Penn, Callery, Evans City, Harmony, Mars, Seven Fields, Valencia and Zelienople in Butler County.
The state's new voter ID requirements will not be used during Tuesday's balloting as they do not take effect until mid-September.
Correction/Clarification: (Published August 7, 2012) A jury found former state Sen. Jane Orie guilty of using her state office employees to run her political campaigns. A story Sunday on the special election to fill the empty 40th state Senate seat incorrectly stated the charges against her.