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STEIN: Looking Back at DelVal News for 2021

“There is a Chinese curse which says May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind,” Robert F. Kennedy said in 1966.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached our shores, the country and the Delaware Valley have been living in “interesting times,” to say the least. Everything from shopping to education to sports has been seen through the lens of COVID, and whether it might lead one to contract it or would mitigate the virus.

Local and state governments collected numbers and issued mandates. Schools were locked down, reopened, and some locked down again. One of the biggest political stories the Delaware Valley Journal covered in 2021 was the rise of parent power. Parents objected to COVID lockdowns and masks at school board meetings, parents opposed to Critical Race Theory, and shocked parents asking school boards to remove what they deem as pornographic books from school libraries, along with school boards limiting parents’ free speech rights.

This also gave rise to election victories for school board candidates who promised not to shut down schools again and the successful statewide political strategy of Back to School PA PAC, which gave about $700,000 to back those candidates’ campaigns.

Another big story this year is crime and violence in Philadelphia, arguably driven by progressive prosecution—or lack thereof—by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office headed by DA Larry Krasner, who was re-elected in November. As of this writing, 555 people were victims of homicide in Philadelphia in 2021—a horrific new record.

At the state government level, voters sent a clear message to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in May when they approved ballot initiatives limiting his emergency powers. It was a also the year when amazing numbers of Republican candidates began vying for the governor’s seat in the 2022 primary, along with similarly large  fields of hopefuls of both parties seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pat Toomey. The Senate race, which may tip the balance of the Senate, could become one of the most closely-watched political contests in the U.S.

The 2021 election process in some DelVal counties also came under fire as delays, mistakes, and mail-in ballots caused consternation.  That has also been a huge issue nationwide since former President Donald Trump questioned the validity of the election process that resulted in his defeat in the swing states, including Pennsylvania. And a lawsuit was filed against Delaware County officials alleging malfeasance in the handling of the 2020 election there.

Another statewide issue in the DelVal Journal was Wolf’s unilateral plunge into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a move that will undoubtedly limit Pennsylvania’s job growth and drive up energy costs for businesses and residents.

RGGI is supposed to reduce greenhouse gases by an auction process for power producers and industrial plants in 12 states, which buy credits to offset emissions. But those other RGGI states are not energy producers like Pennsylvania, with its wealth of natural gas.

And we have closely followed the controversy over the $6.1 billion Mariner East II pipeline. Some residents who live in the vicinity of the pipeline along with public officials have fought the pipeline, while overlooking clear benefits from the pipeline for employment, safety over rail or truck transport, and reduced energy costs. Luckily, for the economy of the DelVal region those efforts appear to have failed and the project is on track for completion.

Locally, Hurricane Ida hit some DelVal areas hard with flood damage as streams overflowed their banks while tornadoes pummeled parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

National issues of inflation and supply-side woes also affected the Delaware Valley region as the Biden administration’s energy and regulatory policies began to be felt here.

In Norristown, the DelVal Journal broke a story regarding Norristown Area School Board President Shae Ashe sending sexually suggestive messages on social media to an underage Norristown High School girl. In the wake of those articles, Ashe resigned from the board and, although he was re-elected, did not return to it.

In Delaware County, the new Health Department, promised by Democrats who were elected to a majority in the county council in 2019, is taking shape and expected to open in 2022. It will cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million its first year.

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Top Stories of 2021 Point to a Busy 2022

Pennsylvania politics was awash in drama in 2021, from constitutional amendments, elections, election reform, and more.  Let’s take a look at five story lines from this year, three that happened, and two that didn’t.

What Happened:

The Constitution Shall Be Amended

Constitutional amendments aren’t new for Pennsylvania voters, but the impact of two questions before voters in the 2021 primary elections will be felt for years to come.  Tired of vetoes from the Democrat governor and lost cases before the Democrat controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Republicans in the legislature took the fight on COVID restrictions to the voters.  Despite efforts by Gov. Wolf to slant the ballot questions, allowing the General Assembly to end an emergency declaration and limiting a unilateral Emergency Declaration to 21 days without the approval of the General Assembly, the measures both passed.

Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to limit a governor’s emergency powers as a result of COVID restrictions, but it didn’t stop the governor.  Wolf used his health secretary to mandate masks in schools, but the courts overruled this move, even his Democrat allies in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court didn’t come to his aide this time.  After over a year of shutdowns and restrictions, the tide has turned on COVID restrictions, it started here on May 18, 2021.

Josh Clears the Field

Yes, the race for governor and U.S. Senate will be decided in 2022, but in today’s world of politics, the race starts well before the calendar flips.  Both contests will be no doubt be vigorous and expensive.  The primaries and general election are likely to break records in terms of money spent, save one contest, the Democrat primary for governor.  Attorney General Josh Shapiro appears to have a cleared the field and will cruise to the nomination in May.  Meanwhile Republicans have more than 12 candidates vying for the nomination.  In the U.S. Senate, Democrats have at least five major candidates, Republicans, six.

How rare is Shapiro’s feat?  The 2002, 2010, and 2014 Democrat primaries were all contested.  Of course, there are still two months before petitions are circulated.  It is not out of the realm of possibilities a candidate may declare, but with $10 million in Shapiro’s war chest, that candidate better have a big check book.

“A Good Day in Baseball”

If “two out of three ain’t bad,” than three out of four must be good too.  That’s how Republicans faired in four 2021 statewide judicial elections.  Securing victories on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, with Judge Kevin Brobson, Pennsylvania Superior Court with Megan Sullivan Kampf, and Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court with Stacy Wallace, the Pennsylvania GOP heads into 2022 with confidence.

In addition to statewide wins, Bucks County Republicans swept all contests on the ballot, along with school board victories around the commonwealth.

What Didn’t Happen:

Election Issues Continue…

Regardless of one’s opinion on the 2020 election process, it was hardly without issues.  Some of those issues spilled over in the 2021.  After vetoing an election reform bill saying it would “undermine faith in government,” Wolf would later admit to violating election law for the 2021 General Election.  Ironically, had Wolf signed the election bill he vetoed, his violation – asking his wife to drop off his ballot – would have been permitted.

Other issues were reported as well, such as Montgomery County counting undated ballots in the primary, a direct violation of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling.  Berks County sent out 17,000 mail-in voting instructions to Spanish speaking voters with the wrong return date deadline.  The English instructions had the correct date.  Indiana County made a similar mistake.  Much like COVID-19 restrictions, if progress is not made in 2022 toward election reform, a constitutional amendment is not out of the question in 2023.

Redistricting Continues…

Citing issues with COVID-19, The U.S, Census Bureau announced the data needed to draw new district lines would be delayed.  The data is necessary for the State House and Senate Redistricting Commission to draw new lines, as well as the legislature to vote on congressional districts.  With time not on their side, the map makers went to work with the information they had, then they eventually included the finalized Census data.

One map appears to be set, the state Senate.  The map passed the Legislative Redistricting Commission with a 5-0 vote on December 16.  The new maps likely won’t flip the Senate to Democrat hands but will see the Republicans hold the chamber with a slimmer majority.  The Pennsylvania House on the other hand is another story, leaving Republicans seeing red, but not on the maps.  The map passed on partisan lines, 3-2.  Under the Commission’s plan, 12 Republican incumbents will face off in primaries, compared to two Democrats.  The maps aren’t set yet, a 30-day public comment period is now underway.  Republicans in the House are sure to opine.

The Pennsylvania Congressional lines are drawn by a different process, the legislature votes on a map, and the governor either accepts or rejects it.  Population loss requires Pennsylvania lose a seat, going from 18 to 17 members.  A proposed map was voted from the House State Government Committee on December 15.  The future of the map is on shaky ground.  Wolf recently declared he would not take part in negotiations with the legislature.  Perhaps setting up the state Supreme Court to draw their own map as they did in 2018.  That map resulted in Democrats picking up five seats.

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