By Tom Ferrick Jr.
This year, a surprising and unusual thing happened to state Rep. James Roebuck of
This just isn't done.
Roebuck, first elected to his
But, not this year. In Tuesday's Democratic primary, he is facing Fatimah Muhammad, who is waging a vigorous campaign against the incumbent, fueled in part with money from political action committees that favor vouchers for education.
So, in the 188th District at least, there is a real primary race over real issues.
These things do happen -- with incumbents being challenged in primary or general elections by legitimate opponents -- but not often, not in
When it comes to politics, the media covers the competitive races (a natural instinct), but ignores the broader trend: fewer and fewer competitive races.
Those stories are about the donut. This one is about the hole.
And what a large hole it is. This year in
In reality, 43 percent of all state House seats are uncontested -- the incumbents have neither primary nor general election opposition. For the Senate, the figure is 44 percent -- 11 of the 25 senators up for re-election have, in effect, already been re-elected because they have no contests.
There are another 24 House seats where the incumbent faces opposition in Tuesday's party primaries, but none in the fall. An example: state Rep. Babette Josephs, who represents
Add the numbers up -- those incumbents with no contest, those with primary-only contests -- and it comes to 111 seats. In other words, a majority of all House seats.
[Update April 25: In Tuesday's primaries all of the incumbents who had opposition in the primary won -- except for three: in Philadelpia, Josephs losts to challenger Brian Sims; in Pittsburgh veteran Democratic House member Joseph Preston lost and in Lackawanna County incumbent Democrat Ken Smith lost his primary.]
How did we get to this state of affairs? Why isn't there more competition for legislative office?
The National Institute on Money in State Politics asked the same questions in a report that covered legislative races across the nation in 2008.
It found that there were regional differences -- with states in the
It found that states with public funding of elections had more competition.
It found that the more expensive races were, the less competition there was.
There's a fourth factor unmentioned in the report: In
While there are battleground areas in the state -- where Republicans and Democrats are close to evenly matched (think: the
To put it another way: In Lancaster County, Republicans almost always win. In
As mentioned, races -- especially the handful of contested ones -- are expensive. State Senate races for an open seat, where there is true competition, can cost $1 million plus. State House races can run $500,000 or more.
As a result, big money rules the day. And big money usually flows to incumbents.
Million dollar man
Take the case of state Sen. Jose Scarnati, a Republican who serves as President Pro Tem of Senate. Scarnati represents the 25th District, which includes counties along the state's northern tier.
Scarnati raised $1 million in 2011 and entered 2012 with a total of $1.3 million in his campaign fund. It should be enough. He has no opposition in either the primary or general election.
Like many legislative leaders, Scarnati has becomea PAC unto himself, doling out $5,000 and $10,000 contributions to other incumbent senators or Republican challengers in contested races. It's a way of winning friends and influencing his colleagues.
Not surprisingly, though competition is rare, the cost of elections has risen significantly over the last decade. In 2000, state legislators got $34 million in contributions. By 2008, the figure had risen to $70 million, according to followthemoney.org, which tracks campaign contributions in the states.
All these factors have lead to a permanent over-class of elected officials. The rule of thumb is: once elected, you are in for life.
There is some natural turnover as legislators retire, die or end up in jail. This year, there are 17 open seats in the state House, where the incumbent has departed for one reason or the other. There are three open seats in the Senate.
When these seats open, there is usually a scrum of candidates who vie in the primary.
There are four Democrats seeking to succeed him, including Jewel Williams. Confusing?
It's his daughter, who is named Jewel (without the double L), seeking to succeed he father in the seat.
Her opponents have cried foul. They fear that voters will confuse Jewel with her father, which is her campaign's fondest hope. But, as the candidate told the Daily News: "I can't help it that my name is Jewel Williams."
Jewel is only 27. If she wins on Tuesday, she is likely to settle in for a long time. That seat may not come open again until 2050.
To summarize, we have a state with legislative bodies where close to half the incumbents are automatically re-elected; where families often hand down seats from one generation to another; where special interests have the right to make unlimited contributions to elected officials; where there is little real competition for legislative seats beyond the candidate offered by the ruling party in any given region. This is our version of democracy in action.