This fall, voters in a Pennsylvania state senate district that straddles Pittsburgh and its northern suburbs knew all about the questions that had been raised about the Democrat in the race, a labor lawyer and first-time candidate named Lindsey Williams.
Anyone who picked up a newspaper could read Republican charges that Williams hadn’t lived in the commonwealth long enough to meet a four-year residency rule, and also check out Williams' counter-argument that she’d met the requirement, albeit just barely.
On Nov. 6, the will of the people in western Pennsylvania was clearly to ignore the residency kerfuffle. Williams was narrowly elected, by a margin of roughly 800 votes, in the longtime Republican-held 38th Senate District -- part of a “blue wave” across the state that saw Democrats make meaningful gains in the GOP-controlled state legislature, especially in suburban districts.
The response from those Republicans who still control the state Senate has been ... not so fast!
In a move lacking any clear precedent, GOP Senate leaders have demanded that Sen.-elect Williams -- if we can still call her that -- submit extensive documentation to prove that the Pennsylvania native had indeed moved back to the Keystone State before the Nov. 6, 2014, cutoff date. And they’ve threatened action to block her from taking office if they find her paperwork lacking.
“She needs to have the ability to come in and lay out that she does meet the requirements and, if she does, that’ll be the end of it,” the Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman told the Associated Press last month. “If she doesn’t, then we’ve got an issue that we need to deal with.”
There has already been ample opportunity to deal with the issue of Williams' residency. Neither the GOP nor Williams' Democratic primary opponent challenged her when she filed her petitions last winter, during the legal window for doing so. When Republicans finally did go to court in October, a judge not only dismissed it as too late but said the non-residency allegations were “barely colorable.” The controversy clearly failed to convince voters that Williams was some kind of outsider.
What the Republicans are threatening in Harrisburg is a pure power play -- a scheme to abuse their majority through that “barely colorable” technicality to overturn the results of an election. If this all sounds familiar, it should. It’s one more salvo in a war against democracy that’s been taking place this fall in statehouses in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, where “sore loser” Republicans are holding lame-duck sessions to limit the powers of Democratic governors, judges, or lawmakers before they take office in January.
“It’s frustrating ... because the consensus in the 38th District was they knew about the issue, it was already dealt with in court and they still voted for me,” Williams told me by phone Wednesday night. She argued that voters cared more about the issues she ran on -- expanding access to health care and education funding -- rather than whether she just made or just missed an arbitrary cut-off by a few days.
Nonetheless, Williams has already submitted roughly 1,000 pages of paperwork to Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati in an effort to prove that she’d already accepted her current job as a lawyer for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union and begun her move here before the 2014 deadline.
The absurd part of this -- well, one of them, anyway -- is that Williams is as Pennsylvania as they come, a daughter of the coal country outside of Scranton. Her father was a union man, a lifelong member of the Operating Engineers, and she stayed in the state for Dickinson College and Duquesne University School of Law. She moved for a time to Maryland and worked in D.C. with the National Whistleblowers Center, where her fight to unionize her co-workers made national news.
The dispute over her residency -- Williams has the email accepting her Pittsburgh job days before the cutoff, but her GOP critics noted she voted in Maryland that November and gave her Maryland address on a traffic ticket -- seems a bit silly.
Having covered politics around these parts for more than two decades, I know judges to be generous to candidates when residency issues seems the least bit murky (the 1999 Philadelphia mayoral candidate Marty Weinberg was Exhibit A) and for good reason: They think voters should have a greater say in who represents them than some judge. And maybe it’s because I’m a native New Yorker -- where politicians like Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton waltzed in from Massachusetts or God knows where and got elected U.S. senator -- but four years seems an unduly restrictive deadline, aimed at protecting incumbents.
But Corman, Scarnati, and the other GOP powerbrokers in Harrisburg aren’t working in a vacuum. The post-electoral assault on Williams' election is a miniature version of much grander power plays in Wisconsin -- where GOP lawmakers and just-defeated Gov. Scott Walker enacted a series of bills to weaken the incoming Democrat who defeated Walker. (One measure, for example, would limit the ability of Gov.-elect Tony Evers to fulfill his promise to withdraw from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. ) Similar legislative moves that would limits what new governors or attorneys general (who just happen to be Democrats) can do are afoot in Michigan and North Carolina.
The anti-democratic maneuvers come off as a way for the Republican Party to hold onto power that’s slipping away at the ballot box, its base of white rural voters shrinking. “For decades, the Republican Party prepared to keep power even as it represented a coalition that became the minority,” Vann R. Newkirk II wrote recently in The Atlantic. “Now, the plan is in full effect.”
In Wisconsin, some lawmakers have been very open about the notion that rural lawmakers represent the true “will of the people" -- even if more actual votes come from cities with large populations of college kids or non-white voters. The Badger State’s Republican House speaker even claimed that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,”
In Pennsylvania, it’s hard not to imagine some rural Republicans with the same warped idea about Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or their increasingly Democratic suburbs. The presence of a Democratic governor in Tom Wolf -- who bucked a GOP national landslide when he was elected in 2014 -- has blocked the kind of extreme measures emerging in Madison or Lansing. But Wolf presumably couldn’t defend Williams -- except in the court of public opinion -- if the Republican Senate majority refuses to accept her election.
Harrisburg Republicans are working not from strength but from fear. The 2018 Democratic gains in suburbs like Delaware County that are in a state of resistance against the Trump presidency suggests real danger for GOP control in 2020 -- and a four-year Senate seat like Williams' could make the difference. You could argue that it’s hardball, or realpolitik -- the kind of nonsense Pennsylvanians should be numb to by now.
But this feels different. Refusing to accept the results of an election -- either by refusing to seat the winner or by leaving booby traps when the other party wins -- is the stuff of banana republics, not the great American Experiment in government by the people. The intense tribalism -- the notion that members of the opposing party aren’t “real Americans,” or lack legitimacy -- isn’t politics as usual. It’s one more alarming warning sign of a nation increasingly ripped asunder.