A funny thing is happening — sad, maybe, if you’re a Republican, amusing if you’re a crusty spectator of politics — ever since Democrats began wiping out Republicans in one suburban Philadelphia election after another following President Donald Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania in 2016.
The Republican Party, perhaps sensing it may soon be on a morphine drip in Southeastern Pennsylvania, has two of its most prominent leaders suddenly making headlines for something you’d normally expect from a Democrat.
The top elected prosecutors in Delaware and Chester Counties are taking aim at a major fossil-fuel industry player — something their party is loath to do. Criminal probes are underway into a Sunoco pipeline project that has caused anxiety, fear, and major property headaches along its route in both counties in recent years.
The recent probes were sparked by Delaware County Republican District Attorney Katayoun Copeland and her GOP counterpart Tom Hogan in neighboring Chester County. The investigations ostensibly are aimed at determining whether laws may have been broken during construction of the Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East natural-gas liquids pipeline system.
The company denied any illegality and said there is “no legitimate basis” for a criminal investigation. The fact that Republicans called for probes reflects the continuing threat that the GOP faces in increasingly mad-as-hell-at-Trump suburban Philadelphia.
Copeland and Hogan are up for reelection this fall in races that Democrats are hoping they can win. Liberals already bagged historic gains in 2017 and 2018 in local and state elections in these once-GOP-dominant counties, fueled in part by anti-Trump furor among progressives, women, and embittered moderates.
With Republicans having so little margin for error anymore in these parts, the pipeline has become too risky to ignore.
Anti-pipeline advocates have become a bona fide force to be reckoned with. They have learned how to get out the vote in non-presidential-year local races. Races in which every single new face at the ballot box can make a difference in who wins or loses. Races, in other words, like this year’s district attorney contests.
Republicans lost a huge number of state legislative seats across Southeastern Pennsylvania a few months ago. It was a midterms massacre for the state GOP, which controls the legislature that has repeatedly refused to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Democrats cleaned house of GOP incumbents for the sin of being in a party marching in lockstep with Trump.
Political insiders view the recent moves by Copeland and Hogan as politically loaded. Both prosecutors can use the pipeline probes to appeal to progressive moderates ahead of what will surely be bruising campaigns this year in counties where Democratic turnout has been high.
“The most recent elections have made it very clear that you can’t hide under a rock on this issue anymore,” Rep. Danielle Friel Otten of Exton told me in a phone interview Wednesday from her new workplace -- the Pennsylvania Capitol.
I called her because state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, had just announced on Tuesday that his office was launching a pipeline probe at the request of Copeland. Hogan, in Chester County, announced a grand jury investigation of his own a few months before that.
“There is no question that the pipeline poses certain concerns and risks to our residents, and as district attorney, I am working to do everything possible within my power to ensure the safety of residents,” Copeland said in announcing the state probe Tuesday. “At this time, we are thoroughly reviewing the evidence available to us, working with the Attorney General’s Office, and seeking action within our jurisdictional boundaries.”
In an interview Wednesday, Hogan told me that “every real prosecutor has to learn to ignore the politics of any investigation. The pipeline investigation, just like any other investigation, is going to please some people politically and irritate other people politically. But a prosecutor with integrity is only going to investigate a case on the merits of the case itself.”
Otten is no ordinary show-up-and-shut-up state lawmaker. Until this past November, the 41-year-old had been a marketing consultant and stay-at-home mom of 2- and 5-year-old children.
But she also is a homeowner whose property line is some 50 feet from a pipeline that had caused sinkholes and other damage after neighbors discovered that Sunoco had begun pumping highly volatile natural gas liquids, such as propane, from Pennsylvania’s booming Marcellus Shale region to the west all the way toward the Delaware River in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.
The 350-mile pipeline network, known as Mariner East, is cherished by labor unions as a source of good jobs and, in Delaware County’s flagging refinery hubs, a way to revive lost petrochemical-industry jobs. Establishment Democrats and Republicans have been treading carefully around homeowner woes.
“A lot of people in both parties shy away from this issue," Otten said. "There’s pressures from the trade unions on the left and there’s pressure from the oil and gas industry on the right.”
But guess what? There can be damage done by just standing on the sidelines, too.
In November 2018, in a state House district where Democrats made up just 35 percent of the voting base, Otten -- with no electoral experience -- defeated 155th House District incumbent Republican Becky Corbin.
And she won with 55 percent of the vote.
This year, even local Democrats are on guard. The pipeline neighbor and woman who managed Otten’s winning House campaign, Ginny Kerslake, is running as an outsider for Chester County commissioner.
“I think it means that the power of the community raising their voice really, truly has had an impact,” Otten said.