By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — The state’s primary elections dominated news in the capital city this week as five state House incumbents were taken down by challengers, and the first woman to run for election as the state’s attorney general won the Democratic nod for that office.
The new Voter ID law, passed less than a month ago, also was in the spotlight as it experienced a “soft rollout” on primary day before going into full effect for the general election in November.
Five Pennsylvania House incumbents lost primary elections Tuesday night — including three who had been in office for more than 25 years — and the Speaker of the House survived an unexpectedly close call.
The biggest incumbent to fall was state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, who served in the state House since 1979.
Another long-time member of the House, state Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, was beaten by
Philadelphia lawyer and gay rights advocate Brian Sims in the center city Philadelphia district.
State Rep. Joe Preston, D-Allegheny, who had held office since 1983, was taken down by Ed Gainey by a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent.
In other races, state Rep. Ken Smith, D-Lackawanna, was defeated by Kevin Haggerty by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, while State Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lackawanna, was defeated by Marty Flynn by about 300 votes in another close race.
House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, found himself in an unexpectedly close race. He lost his home county, but managed to win by about 500 votes thanks to strong support in the small portions of Indiana and Armstrong counties included in the district.
Kathleen Kane won the Democratic Party’s nomination for attorney general and state Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny, won the Republican Party’s nod for auditor general in Tuesday’s primary elections.
Both will advance to November’s general election, where they will face opponents who ran unopposed in the primary round.
Kane defeated former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-District 8, by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent and will be the first woman to run for attorney general in the general election since the office became an elected position in 1980.
Kane will face Cumberland County district attorney David Freed, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
“In these difficult fiscal times, the public is ready for public officials who know how to count,” said Maher, a certified public accountant, in an interview on the Pennsylvania Cable Network after winning the nomination.
He will face state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, in the general election. DePasquale ran unopposed on the Democratic ticket Tuesday.
State Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, lost Tuesday’s Republican primary election, but the 17-term incumbent might not be finished just yet.
Geist was defeated by John McGinnis, a college professor with tea party support and libertarian views who scored the shocking upset by fewer than 200 votes. But the incumbent could end up on the general election ballot as a Democrat in November. Under state law, a candidate can qualify for the general election ballot if he or she secures at least 300 write-in votes in the primary and there is no other candidate with a larger number.
There were no candidates running on the Democratic side of the ticket in that district Tuesday, so eclipsing the 300-vote threshold should be enough to get Geist on the ballot.
Voters in a Philadelphia ward were instructed by some Democratic committee members to refuse to show their identification before voting in Tuesday’s primary, according to a nonprofit.
PA Independent obtained a copy of the letter from The Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit that works to ensure open and fair elections in Philadelphia. The group called the letter "irresponsible and troubling."
Poll workers distributed the letters to voters in the city’s 5th Ward, which is in center city Philadelphia. The city Democratic committee denied any organized effort to oppose the new ID law.
Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of The Committee of Seventy, said the effort was more than a few rogue poll workers distributing the letter.
“From what we have gathered, they were acting on the instructions of the ward leader,” Stalberg said.
Despite a smattering of media reports about problems with Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law after Tuesday’s primary, the Department of State maintains its rollout went well, and the new requirements will be in place in time for November’s general election.
Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele visited polling locations in Philadelphia on Tuesday to observe the new step in the voting process. Showing identification before voting was not mandatory Tuesday, but poll workers were told to ask for it as a way to teach voters about the new law.
“Overall it went very smoothly, but there were a handful of situations where there were issues,” Ron Ruman, spokesman for the department, said Thursday. “In the six months between now and November, we hope the word will spread.”
State Secretary of Corrections says inefficiencies within the state prison system’s is forcing taxpayers to pay for keeping about 1,900 inmates per year locked up when they otherwise would qualify for parole.
Wetzel said the prison system is set up to deal with long-term and dangerous offenders, but now a third of the inmates in the system — about 3,500 every year — come into state prison with less than a year to serve.
Most are drug offenders, he said.
Taxpayers pay about $32,000 per inmate per year to support the prison system, so the backlog of 1,900 extra inmates each year that could be released adds more than $60 million to the department's costs.