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PA House speaker’s win spurs debate on larger districts

By   /   April 25, 2012  /   No Comments

Sponsored plan to reduce the size of the state House, make his district larger
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House speaker survived an unexpectedly close primary challenge Tuesday night, less than a month after championing a plan that would make him — and other incumbents — safer from such challenges in the future.

Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, collected 49 percent of the vote in the 66th House District Republican primary, fewer than 500 votes ahead of challenger Cris Dush, a retired corrections officer and Pennsylvania National Guardsman. Dush received 42 percent and James Brown, a second challenger, 9 percent.
Yet Dush collected more votes than Smith in Jefferson County — the home of both candidates — where most of the district is located. 
Smith was carried to victory in a few municipalities in Armstrong and Indiana counties where voters supported him nearly 3 to 1.
Steve Miskin, Smith’s spokesman, said the close race resulted from the general discontent with government.
In an interview Wednesday, Dush said his message was that state government was “sticking its nose in places that it doesn’t belong.”
A victory for Dush would have ended a 43-year dynasty in which either Smith or his father, Eugene Smith, held the 66th District seat.
The amendment is awaiting action in the state Senate.
Of course, cutting the number of seats makes each district geographically larger. 
Given current population figures, representatives in the House each have about 62,000 residents in their district, which would increase to 83,000 if the House was cut to 153 members.
For someone from a rural area of the state like Smith, the net effect of that change is relatively dramatic.
Jefferson County had 45,000 residents in the 2010 census. Because that is not enough for its own House district, Smith’s district spills over into neighboring Indiana and Armstrong counties. If his district included 83,000 residents, Jefferson County would account for little more than half of the total district.
The electoral math on Tuesday night, combined with Smith’s plan to expand his own district, raises some interesting questions.
Here are the facts:
  • Smith lost his home county in the primary by about 70 votes, but was carried to victory outside the county.
  • Smith sponsored a constitutional amendment that would add 21,000 voters to his existing district, all of them from outside Jefferson County since the district covers the entire county.
Based on Tuesday’s results, Smith would be a safer incumbent with a larger district. 
But, like most conspiracy theories, this one requires an important caveat. 
The amendment would not take effect until after the 2020 census — in other words, not until the 2022 state House election cycle. Smith could be long gone from the speaker’s rostrum by that time.
So, did Smith propose the amendment to save his own skin 10 years in the future? Probably not.
But the example is instructive for another reason. 
Research has indicated that fewer members in a legislative body concentrate power in the executive branch and with legislative leaders. It also makes incumbents more difficult to defeat.
A study conducted in 1985 by University of Minnesota found that a smaller legislature did not decrease the number of bills introduced or the competitiveness of legislative elections. However, the study indicated a smaller legislature would give the leadership of the majority party slightly more authority. 
Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising PA, a nonprofit that advocates for open and transparent government, pointed to the expense of running for office.
Simply by being in the state capital, incumbents have access to greater fundraising mechanisms than challengers, and money translates into votes, he said.
Opponents to reducing the number of state House representatives also argue that larger districts will make fundraising more important than retail politics — going door-to-door in pursuit of votes.
Go back to Tuesday night in Jefferson County. 
In a smaller district, one concentrated on Jefferson County alone, Dush very well could have pulled off the upset against the 25-year incumbent and a legacy member of the state House. 
He had no paid staff and spent very little time campaigning in Armstrong or Indiana counties, choosing to spend his limited assets in Jefferson County.
Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, called the close call “pretty shocking” for a lawmaker of Smith’s stature and given Dush’s resources.
“There’s obviously going to be areas that you can’t get to without having significant resources,” he said of the geographically large district.
If the district was larger, what was a near upset would have been an easier victory for Smith — or any longtime incumbent with fundraising and organizational advantages.
Smith repeatedly has said the idea to cut members from the state House is to have the body work more efficiently. He added that modern technology, including cell phones and email, will allow lawmakers to remain in contact with constituents and campaign in larger districts.
Miskin said Wednesday that reducing the size of the Legislature was about reforming how Harrisburg works.