The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 29, 2012

Kane win, Specter death marked Pa. politics in '12

By Peter Jackson
Associated Press

HARRISBURG —

Some things that stirred much political discussion in Pennsylvania in 2012 did not materialize — a photo ID requirement for voters, legislative redistricting, a high-profile role for the state in the presidential race.

But there was hardly a drought of statewide political news.

Democratic newcomer Kathleen Kane was elected attorney general, ending voters' 32-year-old habit of exclusively choosing Republican men as Pennsylvania's chief legal officer. She is the first woman elected to the post since it became an elective office in 1980.

The former Lackawanna County prosecutor was the top vote-getter in the general election, more than Obama or Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who defeated Republican millionaire Tom Smith to win a second term. Kane beat GOP nominee David Freed, the Cumberland County district attorney, by 14.5 percentage points.

Kane, of Scranton, and Auditor General-elect Eugene DePasquale, a Democratic former state representative from York, won two open statewide "row offices" while Democratic state Treasurer Rob McCord was re-elected to the third. Only the attorney general's office changed parties.

The elections also brought good news for legislative Democrats, who picked up three Senate seats after losing the governorship and what was left of their legislative clout two years ago, but Republicans retained control of both houses.

"For the millions of dollars spent on campaigns, this was a status quo election," said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

In October, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, whose 30 years in office made him Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, died at 82 after his third bout with cancer. Vice President Joe Biden was among the hundreds of mourners who attended his funeral.

Pennsylvania's government and politics bore the stain of scandal for a third straight year as state and federal judges sentenced more than a dozen former legislators and aides convicted of public corruption.

Former House speakers John Perzel of Philadelphia, a Republican, and Bill DeWeese, a Greene County Democrat, were among several legislative leaders who were sent to prison.

As the year ended, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin remained suspended without pay as she awaits trial on charges of illegally using her publicly paid staff to work on political campaigns. Her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, is serving a prison sentence for her conviction on similar charges earlier this year.

Corruption "has become part of our political landscape," said political scientist and pollster Christopher Borick at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

At the Capitol, Gov. Tom Corbett teamed up with GOP majorities in the Legislature to pass measures that included a natural-gas drilling law that encourages new wells and limits taxation, hundreds of millions in business tax breaks and a refinancing of the state unemployment compensation system's $4 billion debt to the federal government. And he boasted that he kept his no-new-taxes pledge for his second year in office.

Yet Corbett's job-approval rating remained low — a November poll by Quinnipiac University put it at 40 percent of the state's voters — amid lingering disenchantment over past spending cuts for education and social services. Some GOP leaders voiced frustration over Corbett's low-key persona and his reticence to tout his successes.

In a recent interview, Corbett acknowledged that his legislative accomplishments were achieved with few Democratic votes, leading to hard feelings among members of the Democratic minority who said they were left out of lawmaking during the past two years.

Bipartisanship also is likely to be more of a necessity now that Democrats have reduced the Senate Republican majority from 10 seats to four.

"We've got to work better on that this time," Corbett said.

Sensing vulnerability in Corbett, numerous Democrats and at least one Republican have publicly said they are considering or planning campaigns to challenge his expected re-election bid in 2014. Democrat John Hanger, a former state environmental protection secretary, declared his candidacy in November.

Kane's election will ensure a new round of official scrutiny of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case that could put her on a collision course with Corbett.

She ran on a pledge to investigate why it took the attorney general's office almost three years to charge the former Penn State assistant football coach, who is serving a 30- to 60-year prison term for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.

Corbett was attorney general when the state took over the case in early 2009 until he became governor in January 2011. He has said the pace of the probe was unavoidable and cites Sandusky's conviction on 45 of 48 counts as proof of its effectiveness.

As for those things that didn't happen in 2012, here is more detail:

— Speculation that the state might reprise its high-profile 2008 role as a battleground in the White House race gave way to a battle of surrogates and TV attack ads punctuated by sporadic visits from the candidates. Despite an 11th-hour advertising blitz by Republican Mitt Romney and his allies, President Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 5 percentage points and led a Democratic sweep in the five statewide races.

— A new GOP-backed law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls set off a partisan battle that prompted the courts to suspend the requirement for this year and left many voters confused on Election Day. The law remains in force and a constitutional challenge is pending. Critics call it an attempt to suppress voting by Democratic-leaning minorities and senior citizens; Republicans say it will help curb fraud.

— The redrawing of state legislative districts that is supposed to occur every 10 years wasn't completed in time for this year's elections because the state Supreme Court rejected maps drawn by a constitutionally mandated panel in a case that remains in limbo. As a result, the elections were held in the same districts in use for the past decade. Assuming new maps are approved in time for the next legislative elections in 2014, some lawmakers could find themselves living outside the districts they now represent.