Power plays in Pennsylvania.
After 12 years of toiling in the minority, Democrats in the Pennsylvania Senate are walking around the Capitol these days as if they own it.
And, indeed, they do. By the thinnest of margins. Perhaps not for long. And not by virtue of winning a majority of the Senate's 50 seats.
But no matter all that. In one of the most partisan of state legislatures, what matters is the Democrats are in control. And, like the minimum-wage worker who hits the lottery, they are vigorously flaunting their newfound power.
Republicans had controlled the Senate since 1981. Their biggest margin was 27-23. Their narrowest was 26-24--including the session that ended last November.
Those bare Republican majorities have been a pivotal fact in Pennsylvania state government, particularly since 1987.
During that time, Democrats have held the House (currently 105-98) and the governor's mansion (Governor Robert P. Casey). But Republicans stubbornly kept the Senate, wielding their razor-thin majorities expertly, if not benevolently.
Republicans almost always voted as a bloc on parliamentary matters, imposing their will on the Democrats. The Republicans decided what was voted (their bills) and what was buried (the Democrats'). They controlled the committees and virtually everything else. Casey and the House Democrats couldn't pass a resolution honoring the flag without Senate Republican input.
But through a bizarre turn of events last November, control of the Senate abruptly and unexpectedly returned to the Democrats.
It started early in 1992 with state legislative reapportionment. The gridlocked General Assembly was unable to adopt a map of its own, so the courts took over. The court's plan included moving the 44th state Senate district from outside Pittsburgh, where population was dwindling, to the booming suburbs of Philadelphia.
This was unhappy news for Republican Senator Frank Pecora, who had represented the 44th district since 1978.
Pecora, 62, was in the middle of a four-year term. When the district was moved, so was he. Pecora was outraged and blamed his fellow Republicans for sacrificing his seat (a charge the GOP vehemently denies). Pecora switched parties to run for Congress back in Pittsburgh, but lost in the general election. Resigned to serving the final two years of his term in an area he hardly knew, Pecora rented an apartment in his new district (to meet the state's residency requirement) and began plotting his revenge.
Although a new Democrat by registration, in 1992 Pecora was still sitting and voting with the Republicans in Harrisburg. Rumors abounded that Pecora would switch and vote with Democrats. But he sat tight. And Republicans held their 26-24 edge.
Until Nov. 23. Suddenly, Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow made a motion to reorganize.
Pecora had flipped.
The vote was 25-25 with Pecora voting with the Democrats. Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, the Senate president, broke the tie. A new president pro tempore would be elected.
Republicans went berserk, trying every parliamentary trick in the book. But they just couldn't beat the new math. Hours later, Mellow was elected president pro tem.
"It was like a knife in the back," said Senate Republican Leader Robert Jubelirer, who was ousted as president pro tem.
"If we lost an election in November, that would have been different. But you work your buns off, you raise money, you win every election, in fact the Democrats never laid a glove on you, and then to have this happen. It was like a kick below the belt."
Sour grapes, said Mellow, who remembers that Republicans won the majority in 1980 in part by getting a Democrat to switch parties, a tactic they used again in the mid-1980s to retain the majority.
"This is poetic justice," said Mellow.
Mellow and his fellow Democrats wasted no time. GOP committee chairmen instantly were replaced with Democrats. Republicans lost the lucrative staff accounts that go with the majority and had to lay off 18 people. Republican leaders were booted from their Capitol offices and transferred to more modest accommodations so Democrats could move into the seats of power. (So deep is Pennsylvania's partisan mistrust, Democratic leaders called in state police wiretap experts in case Republicans had left more than cobwebs behind. No bugs were found.)
On Jan. 20, the 25-25 tie became a 2524 working majority for Democrats. Republican Senator Jim Greenwood resigned to take a seat in Congress. Now Democrats could ram through their agenda. (Singel, the lieutenant governor, is authorized to break ties only on procedural votes and amendments, not on final passage of legislation.)
But, alas, it wouldn't last long. A special election would have to be called to replace Greenwood. His district was GOP heartland, virtually certain to return a Republican. Singel, constitutionally charged with scheduling the special election, was expected to call it for May 18, concurrent with the regularly scheduled primary election. Republicans wanted it sooner, but Singel had a logical reason to wait until May 18--holding a stand-alone special election would cost taxpayers more money.
By waiting until May, Singel would be doing taxpayers a favor while still affording Democrats a window of opportunity.
Turns out, a window wasn't enough. Singel gave them a doorway.
He called a stand-alone special election for July 13--assuring Democrats a working majority when the state budget was adopted May 28.
Remarkably, Singel made no bones about it. Yes, 240,000 Pennsylvanians would be deprived of Senate representation for the most important voting time of the year. Yes, it would cost taxpayers more money. But Democrats deserved a chance to show Pennsylvanians what they could do. Ending gridlock was the greater good, Singel said.
"It was absolutely the most blatant politically partisan move I've seen," said Jubelirer, the Republican leader.
As a result, Harrisburg's already bitter partisanship is more intense than ever. Democrats have their opportunity to show what they can do--but they are going to have to do it with few, if any, Republican votes. It's the same pressure President Clinton and the Democratic Congress feel, compressed into six months.
The paradox in all this is that the policy agendas of the two Senate caucuses aren't all that different. Both tend toward moderate-conservative. For the most part, they,re not fighting over ideology.
"I think the agendas are very similar," said Mellow. "It's the competitive edge people care about. Everybody today is concerned about power. Who can chair the committee, who can call the meeting, who will be the prime sponsor. It's a macho thing, and it's something we need to get away from.
"We can agree on 99 percent of the budget in the wink of an eye, then fight for three months over the other 1 percent. It doesn't make sense.
"And it's getting worse."
Editors Note: On May 31, Democratic Senator Francis Lynch died, leaving the Pennsylvania Senate evenly divided at 24-24. A special election will be held Nov. 2 in Lynch's heavily Democratic district.