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Score One for the Record Books

December 1, 2005 By:
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Brian Gordon
Election Day 2005 was not supposed to have turned out like this. Outside of Philadelphia - where Democratic District Attorney Lynne Abraham was up for re-election, and two candidates were battling for the office being vacated by Democratic City Controller Jonathan Saidel - and Pittsburgh, where the top office in City Hall was up for grabs, the only major questions facing voters across the state was who to elect to the local board of commissioners, and whether or not to retain a handful of judges.

It was an off year: no major races, no federal spots left open - just an average municipal election.

But in the end, Nov. 8 turned out to be an election for the history books. By the time the votes were counted, Supreme Court Justice Russell M. Nigro was left wondering what he will do after becoming the first judge in state history to lose a bid for retention.

"You can't ignore it," says Philadelphia-based political analyst Larry Ceisler. "There's a lot of discontent among the electorate."

Pundits credit voter anger over a last-minute pay raise herded through the state legislature on July 7 with the election returns that unseated Nigro and left another judge, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, catching her breath following a razor-thin result that almost left her without a job as well.

Perhaps sensing their own futures on the line - activists gunning for Nigro and Newman admit they chose them for defeat in part to send a message to the General Assembly, most of which is up for re-election next November - legislators in Harrisburg repealed the pay raise two weeks ago.

But neither Eric Epstein, one of the leaders of the anti-pay raise movement, nor pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll, consider the issue over.

"We have a lot of work to do," commented Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital and a former Holocaust professor living in Harrisburg. "This is a political marathon. We're in the infancy of a movement to reform government."

According to Epstein, the pay-raise issue "was a metaphor for general discontent throughout the commonwealth. Every time people went to the gas pumps, viewed the war in Iraq on TV, their angst was amplified."

What that means for 2006 is anybody's guess, said Madonna. But it does demonstrate that voters may be prepared to send a whole host of incumbents packing.

A Lot on the Line for Next Year
It's bad news for Democrats, but it's potentially even worse for Republicans, who control both houses of the state legislature, as well as both the House of Representatives and the Senate on Capitol Hill.

(Next year, all U.S. representatives are up for re-election, along with a third of the U.S. Senate - including Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) - all 203 members of the state House of Representatives and half of the 50-member state Senate.)

"You go around the state and counties where incumbents were supposed to win handily didn't," said Madonna, who lives in Lancaster County. "Democrats are a lot more excited than Republicans, because now they see more than ever in President Bush's approval ratings a chance to pick up seats in Congress."

Ceisler pointed out, however, that in one area, at least, 2005 played out exactly as expected. In Democrat-heavy Philadelphia, Abraham trounced Republican Louis Schwartz, 82 percent to 12 percent. State Rep. Alan Butkovitz (D-District 174) likewise bested his GOP opponent, Hillel Levinson, to become the city's next controller.

One race that was telling, though, was in Lower Merion Township, where Democrat Brian Gordon defeated Republican Jim Stevenson in the fight to become commissioner in Ward 12. In that race, which saw Republican incumbent James Ettelson withdraw weeks before Election Day, Gordon invoked Democratic anger at President Bush and Republicans in Congress at campaign events.

The final margin of victory for Gordon was 73 percent to 27 percent.

Madonna said a similar thing occurred in his home county, which was targeted by the Bush campaign in 2004.

"In townships that [usually] do not elect Democrats, Democratic candidates seeking school-board positions won," he reported. "Next year, there is no doubt in my mind that unless something changes, Democrats will try to nationalize the election."

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