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Election Special: No Contest

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

This year, a surprising and unusual thing happened to state Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia. He has an opponent for re-election.

This just isn't done.

Roebuck, first elected to his West Philadelphia seat in a special election in 1985, rarely has faced more than token opposition.

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.

Voting Machine.jpgRoebuck, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, opposes vouchers. Muhammad supports them.

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 Pennsylvania.

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 Pennsylvania, all 203 state House seats are up for election as are 25 of the 50 state Senate seats. On paper, that is.

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 Center City's 182nd House district, will face lawyer Brian Sims in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.  Whoever wins will get a free ride in November.  No Republican has filed to run for the seat.

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.]



Some questions

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 Midwest and Mountain West having the highest number of contested races. (Some of those states have term limits; Pennsylvania does not.)

It found that states with public funding of elections had more competition. Pennsylvania does not have public funding -- and likely never will.

It found that the more expensive races were, the less competition there was. Pennsylvania is an expensive state for campaigns.

There's a fourth factor unmentioned in the report: In Pennsylvania, there tends to be strong segregation by political party.

While there are battleground areas in the state -- where Republicans and Democrats are close to evenly matched (think: the Philadelphia suburbs), most counties in the state are either deep red or dark blue. Very few are mauve.

To put it another way:  In Lancaster County, Republicans almost always win.  In Philadelphia, Democrats do. (In all of Philadelphia today, there is only one Republican legislator left: state Rep. John Taylor, a veteran from the Northeast.)

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.

Pennsylvania not only lacks public funding for elections, it also sets few limits on giving. While federal law puts a ceiling on how much people can contribute, in Pennsylvania the sky is the limit. PAC contributions of $10,000 to $50,000 to one candidate are not uncommon. Roebuck, for instance, has gotten $10,000 from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers PAC so far in this election cycle.

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, 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.

Philadelphia's 197th District is an example.  The incumbent, state Rep. Jewell Williams, gave the seat up after he was elected Sheriff.

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.

Welcome to Pennsylvania.


Click here for a complete list of candidates in the April24th Primary Election.



Read about how Pennsylvania's new photo ID law divides Pennsylvania voters into the haves and have nots in Part Two of our Election Special. 

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