Verdict triggers 40th District special election

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Jane Orie's conviction on public corruption charges will trigger a special election, and the front-runner to replace her as state senator in the 40th District is her predecessor, Melissa Hart.

Ms. Hart, a Republican from Bradford Woods, has been working in law since losing her congressional seat to Democrat Jason Altmire in 2006 but could be returning to government with Ms. Orie's conviction. After Ms. Orie is sentenced or resigns, a special election will be called -- perhaps this summer -- to fill the 21/2 years left in her four-year term.

Candidates would be chosen by both parties for the election, but no Democrat has held the North Hills seat covering parts of Allegheny and Butler counties since Ms. Hart beat incumbent John Regoli, D-North Huntington, in 1990.

Dan DeMarco of Ross ran on the Democratic ticket in 2010, first staging a write-in campaign to make the ballot and then getting drubbed by Ms. Orie by 16 percentage points in the general election. Allegheny County's Democratic chair, Nancy Mills, said she expects Mr. DeMarco to run again.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi on Monday issued a joint statement praising Ms. Orie's work in the Senate.

"Throughout her 15 years of service in the General Assembly, Senator Jane Orie has worked tirelessly on behalf of her constituents. We thank the men and women on the jury for their service, and we respect their decision," the statement said.

Ms. Orie's latest trial has coincided with the pre-primary political season, so her possible replacements have been the talk of GOP gatherings around the area. Other GOP officials in the district include state Reps. Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry and Randy Vulakovich of Shaler; and Allegheny County Council member Jan Rea of McCandless.

Other possible names include the party's 2011 candidate for county controller, Bob Howard of Marshall; Republican Committee of Allegheny County treasurer Karen Shaheen of McCandless; and Butler County GOP vice chair Robin Redding of Cranberry.

Mr. Turzai, the House majority leader, is the most powerful legislator in the Senate district but already has flirted with a run for Congress this year before turning it down. Mr. Metcalfe is the chair of the House State Government Committee and a vocal supporter of the state's voter identification bill and efforts to stem illegal immigration. Both would be hampered in a Senate bid by having to run simultaneously for re-election to the House.

The GOP nominee for the 40th District seat will be chosen by Republican conferees from Allegheny and Butler counties. The Democratic nominee will be picked similarly by committee members in the district.

"I greatly regret the decision made by the court, and I'm hopeful through the appeals process [Ms. Orie] will ultimately be exonerated," said Allegheny County GOP chair Jim Roddey, who will be in charge of appointing most of his party's conferees.

Ms. Hart is a regular presence at party events and well-known to party officials and voters. While she had a reputation for sharp partisan elbows in her time in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., her bid could be helped by the fact she was never touched by corruption scandals like that faced by Ms. Orie or so many other state legislative leaders of both parties.

She may also seek to have her 10 years of Senate seniority restored should she be elected.

"There's no question who the strongest candidate is, and I don't doubt [GOP leaders] will make a strong pitch to ask her to run," said Michael O'Connell, a longtime Republican consultant.

Ms. Hart could not be reached.

Ms. Orie was elected to the state House in 1996 and won a 2001 special election to replace Ms. Hart in the Senate, beating Mr. Turzai and former state Rep. Jeff Habay of Shaler for the GOP party machinery's nomination. (Mr. Habay, too, was convicted of public corruption in 2006.) Ms. Orie had served as the majority whip in the Senate since 2007 -- the body's third-highest ranking leadership post -- but stepped down after she was indicted.

This year's special election could be pushed back to the middle of summer, making voting in public school polling places somewhat complicated, or even later if Ms. Orie chooses to wait until her sentencing to step down. Alternatively, she could resign before sentencing.

State Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, another longtime Western Pennsylvania leader convicted recently of corruption, has chosen to stay in office until his sentencing April 24.

"I would hope, having been convicted, she would not follow the example of Bill DeWeese and step down," Mr. O'Connell said. "I like Bill DeWeese, but what good does he do himself holding onto that office other than collecting two or three extra paychecks? Show some respect for the office you held."


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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