Suspense deepens for control of state House
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HARRISBURG -- It will take another week before a recount of votes is completed in the last disputed state House race, thus continuing the suspense over whether Democrats or Republicans will control the chamber starting Jan. 2.
Democrats have been claiming victory, saying they hold a 102-101 edge based on a 23-vote victory certified last week in Chester County. The county board of elections said Democratic candidate Barbara McIlvaine Smith defeated Republican Shannon Royer by 23 votes out of more than 23,000 cast in the 156th House District.
Based on that slim margin, House Democratic leader H. William DeWeese of Waynesburg feels confident he will be the new state House speaker when the election is held Jan. 2.
But not so fast, say House Republicans, who have controlled the House since 1995 and aren't giving up that power without a fight.
Steve Miskin, an aide to current House Majority Leader Sam Smith of Punxsutawney, said yesterday that Mr. Royer will file for a recount in the 156th District race by the deadline tomorrow. It will be up to a judge in Chester County Common Pleas Court to set a date for the recount, but it's not expected until next week.
"The bottom line is, it's not over yet," contended Mr. Miskin. "With so much on the line, Mr. Royer feels he owes it to the families of the 156th to ensure that every legally cast ballot is counted before the final outcome is decided."
Mr. Miskin claimed there could be a margin of error of up to 1.5 percent on the new voting machines used in Chester County Nov. 7, adding that "the 23-vote difference in this race is well within that margin of error."
A recount isn't the GOP's only tactic for trying to keep House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, in his post. Mr. Perzel, who has been speaker since 2003, is also trying to woo one or two House Democrats to switch sides. All it would take is one Democrat to defect and the GOP would regain a 102-101 advantage. Mr. DeWeese said he is working to make sure such defections don't happen.
House Democrats said they are also dissatisfied with the county-certified tally in District 156, but for a different reason. The Chester County board of elections, controlled 2-1 by Republicans, refused to count 14 provisional and military votes last week, said Pittsburgh lawyer Clifford Levine, who represents House Democrats.
He said Ms. Smith would likely have increased her 23-vote margin of victory, because most of the provisional ballots were cast by registered Democrats. He wants Chester County Common Pleas Court to consider those rejected ballots as well as the GOP request for a recount.
Capitol insiders consider Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Perzel as the only serious contenders for speaker, but citizens groups maintained yesterday there should be other options.
Democracy Rising PA co-founder Tim Potts said legislators should elect as speaker a compromise candidate who didn't help orchestrate last year's controversial pay raises and who supports increasing public access to government documents. Mr. Perzel and Mr. DeWeese voted for the pay raises in July 2005 but backed down in November 2005 after massive public protest.
Mr. Potts and other reformers want the Legislature to change the way it does business, including the noncompetitive way it chooses a speaker. Once the ruling party chooses a candidate, no one else runs.
At a Capitol news conference yesterday, the critics called for an end to late-night votes, adherence to a rule requiring bills to be considered on three different days before a vote, stricter rules for use of expense accounts and public audits of leaders' spending.
Mr. DeWeese, who was minority leader last session, and Mr. Perzel have been unwilling or unable to make those changes, the critics charged.
Electing a speaker "is a chance for the representatives we just elected to hold [Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Perzel] accountable for their arrogance, for their public deceit and their private treachery, for their waste of tax dollars, for their secrecy, for the perks and per diems and pensions," Mr. Potts said, as well as "for their vindictiveness toward those who disagree with them, for their too-cozy relationship with lobbyists and their too-distant relationship with citizens."
Activists at the news conference said the leaders did not learn from public outrage over the pay raise measure, which was passed in the middle of the night with no public discussion.
First Published December 5, 2006 12:00 am