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How Harrisburg Works: New caucuses, special election season, and the death of a bill

State House lawmakers have formed a new Jewish caucus. One of the first acts of business: rejecting Doug Mastriano.

How Harrisburg Works: New caucuses, special election season, and the death of a bill

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — As Pennsylvania approaches the June 30 budget deadline, top lawmakers are busy negotiating and Capitol lips are tightly sealed about what is being discussed.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of legislative trivia to explore as we all wait for more details to trickle out.

In this edition of his recurring feature, Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso looks at lawmakers’ internal groups, what happens when a bill fails, and the next round of special elections.

Have a question? Email him at [email protected] with the subject line “How Harrisburg Works.”

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What’s going on with all these caucuses?

In a previous edition of How Harrisburg Works, Spotlight PA explained that caucuses are informal groups of like-minded legislators organized around a common ideology, industry, or interest. They are meant to bring lawmakers together to advocate for their pet issue.

Normally, these groups are low-key affairs that attract birds of a feather. But the start of the Pennsylvania Legislative Jewish Caucus in March was a little different.

Founded by state Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) and state Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks), the caucus aims to “protect the civil rights of all Pennsylvanians” and celebrate Jewish culture and heritage, according to an invitation that was sent to all 253 lawmakers and viewed by Spotlight PA.

Frankel, who represents the Pittsburgh neighborhood that’s home to the synagogue where a white supremacist killed 11 Jewish people in 2018, told Spotlight PA he founded the caucus to build a bulwark against all forms of bigotry, not just antisemitism.

He also cited state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign as an impetus for the caucus. The Franklin County Republican’s first rally opened with a person blowing a Jewish holy instrument. The state senator also paid for “consulting” from the founder of a far-right social media website on which the alleged synagogue shooter posted antisemitic content And he called the Jewish day school that Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro attended “one of the most privileged schools,” which some observers argued was an antisemitic dog whistle.

The campaign “was very disturbing, and I wanted to be better prepared for next time,” Frankel told Spotlight PA. The caucus, Frankel added, is “one mechanism, one tool we could use as a community of legislators to stand together.”

A top priority for the caucus and Frankel is the passage of a four-bill package that would expand the state’s hate crimes statute. The bills are backed by the Shapiro administration and advanced out of a state House committee this week.

The group’s stated goals were immediately tested when Mastriano attempted to join the caucus.

The caucus “will not launder the dangerous antisemitism out of your past,” Frankel and Schwank said in an April email rejecting Mastriano. “Your actions added fuel to a very dangerous fire, and any heartfelt effort to repair that damage would need to begin with the acknowledgment of your role in it.”

Mastriano told Spotlight PA, “They invited me, and then rejected me.”

“I’ve always loved the Jewish people and Jewish nation,” Mastriano added.

This week, 34 state House Democrats — representing about a third of the 102-member majority — formed the Pennsylvania Progressive Caucus. The group will use its “collective power to fight for policies that prioritize our constituents and working people over corporate interests, fight economic and social inequality and advance racial justice, reproductive justice and civil liberties.”

Even under complete Republican legislative control, progressives notched a few wins, the biggest being the state’s $125 million Whole-Home Repairs program to provide grants to homeowners and landlords for maintenance.

But after Democrats flipped the state House last year, “It’s just really clear to us that it is a tremendous moment in which we have a lot of new members who share our values,” state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia) told Spotlight PA.

A separate group of 18 lawmakers ages 45 years old or younger announced the formation of a bipartisan Pennsylvania Future Caucus comprised of millennial and Gen Z legislators. They hope to hash out compromises on issues faced by young people and families such as rising housing, higher education, and child care costs

Caucus co-chair state Rep. Thomas Kutz (R., Cumberland) said the caucus will create a forum “outside of the soundbites of the House floor” where lawmakers can have candid conversations.

Members of the public show support for legislative action against gun violence at the Harrisburg Capitol in 2019. Commonwealth Media Services

What happens when a bill fails?

State House Democrats, with some Republican support, passed two long-sought gun control bills this week, including a proposal that would require state background checks for all firearm purchases, not just handguns. The other is an extreme risk protection order measure that would allow family members or law enforcement to petition a court to take away someone’s guns if they are a danger to themself or others.

The bills now go to the state Senate, where they face an uncertain fate in the GOP-controlled upper chamber.

However, another bill that would require gun owners to report a gun as lost or stolen within 72 hours of discovering the weapon’s disappearance, failed by a single vote: 100-101.

Unlike the other bills, the lost and stolen reporting bill received no Republican support. State Rep. Frank Burns (D., Cambria) also voted against it, sinking the proposal in a chamber where Democrats hold only a one-seat majority. Burns also voted against the other two gun bills.

It’s unusual for a bill to fail on the Pennsylvania House floor, said Alex Garlick, a University of Vermont political science professor who studies American legislatures.

Between 2009 and 2018, just 75 out of more than 5,000 bills that were put up for a final vote in either chamber of the Pennsylvania General Assembly failed, according to data he collected.

“It’s not infinitesimally small. This isn’t lightning striking. But it shows how narrow the chamber is and how difficult a job leadership has keeping their members in rank,” Garlick told Spotlight PA.

Legislative leaders, added Garlick, will usually only schedule votes they think they can win and skip votes they may lose to project strength and unity around a common agenda. They are also drawn to votes that can split the minority party, as two of the bills did; in fact, they passed because of Republican support.

One conservative lawmaker, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R., Clinton), even highlighted the dynamic on the floor, telling her GOP colleagues who might vote for stricter gun laws that they are “aiding and abetting the socialism and communism that Democrats are pushing in our country.”

State House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said Democrats’ slim majority necessitates humility.

“At 102, we’re going to have to be bipartisan and thoughtful and strategic,” Bradford told Spotlight PA. “And I think we were all those things. And I think we passed two historic pieces of gun legislation to make Pennsylvania safer because of it.”

But the failed vote isn’t the end of the discussion. Bradford has already filed a motion to reconsider the lost and stolen bill, which could happen at any time.

What’s next for special elections?

State House Democrats successfully defended their majority during the May primary election, winning a suburban Philadelphia special election by a 20-point margin. The race briefly raised alarm bells among Pennsylvania Democrats, who worried that they could lose. That fear drew more than $1 million in spending plus a presidential endorsement to the previously sleepy race.

But there are already more special elections on the horizon.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato (D., Allegheny) won the Democratic nomination to be Allegheny County’s next executive. Democrats are bullish on her chances to win this November in the heavily Democratic county, but she still needs to defeat Republican Joe Rockey to win the spot.

Innamorato told Spotlight PA that she won’t step down from her state House seat unless she wins in November.

On the other side of Pennsylvania, state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks) ran for judge as both a Democrat and Republican — something allowed in a limited number of races — and won both nods.

In an interview with Spotlight PA, Galloway declined to comment on the future of his seat but said he is grateful to continue serving his community and that he plans to stay in office until he is sworn in as a judge.

A special election for Galloway’s seat, in lower Bucks County, has privately raised concerns among some Democratic operatives, who have pointed to the area’s slow rightward shift in the past few statewide elections.

Galloway has reliably won reelection, but he is also one of the chamber’s more conservative Democrats, and previously has voted to restrict abortion access and expand a tax credit for private school scholarships.

Trevor Southerland, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, said in an email that the group and Shapiro “have made very clear that we will defend the House Majority and we’re confident that voters in both Allegheny and Bucks County will vote to maintain a Democratic House.”

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