The Incline in Harrisburg

Lindsey Williams won her Pittsburgh election. It looks like the GOP will let her serve.

Explaining the Pa. Senate drama

Supporters of Lindsey Williams at the capitol Dec. 28, 2018

Supporters of Lindsey Williams at the capitol Dec. 28, 2018

Sarah Anne Hughes / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated 5 p.m.

A group of roughly a dozen supporters of senator-elect Lindsey Williams came to the capitol Friday to demand one thing: that Republicans seat her on Jan. 1.

By the afternoon, it was looking like the GOP would.

The swearing-in process for General Assembly lawmakers is usually ceremonial, but it became a source of drama this year. Senate Republicans had questioned whether Williams, a Democrat who won the race to represent the 38th district in the Pittsburgh area, met the residency requirements to run.

Williams has provided ample proof that she was in Pennsylvania when she needed to be, said one of her backers — her mom, Nancy Williams. “We are here to say, don’t become the next North Carolina with voter suppression, and let the voices and the votes of the people of Pittsburgh be counted,” she said Friday.

Supporters, led by Kadida Kenner of the We the People campaign, met with the chief of staff for Sen. John DiSanto, who represents Dauphin and Perry counties. They delivered petitions from more than 3,000 people to DiSanto’s staff as well as to the offices of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Majority Leader Jake Corman.

The protest was one of a handful that took place across the state at Republican senators’ offices. Williams attended a rally at the Allegheny County Courthouse with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa.

With Jan. 1 fast approaching, it was still not clear Friday morning what Senate Republicans intended to do. By the afternoon, a top GOP leader signaled he would support seating Williams, essentially putting an end to the drama.

If you’re confused (which, fair), here’s an explainer of how we got here.

Did Williams win her election?

She did. After a nasty race, Williams bested Republican Jeremy Shaffer by 793 votes, according to election results published by the Pa. Department of State.

The 38th district includes Aspinwall, Etna, Fox Chapel, McCandless, Millvale, O’Hara, Pine, Richland, Ross, Shaler, Tarentum and parts of Pittsburgh.

Cool, so what’s the problem?

Top Senate Republicans are not convinced that Williams met the eligibility requirements to run for office.

What are the residency rules for candidates?

It depends on which office they’re seeking. Per the Pennsylvania constitution, state Senate candidates must be:

  • 25 years old
  • A 4-year inhabitant of the state
  • A 1-year inhabitant of the district
  • A U.S. citizen for four years

The question for Republicans is whether she lived in Pennsylvania four years prior to Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018.

Williams said she accepted a job offer from the Pittsburgh Federation for Teachers on Nov. 2, 2014 and immediately began the process of moving from Maryland to her native Pennsylvania. Republicans point to the fact that Williams voted in Maryland on Nov. 4 of that year and a traffic ticket from that month that lists her address in Maryland.

How is Williams supposed to prove her residency?

She’s provided dozens of pages of documents, including sworn affidavits that she began staying with friends on Nov. 6, 2014 while looking for a place to live.

Is the GOP satisfied?

It’s starting to look like it.

“As of right now, no decision has been made,” a spokesperson for Senate Republicans said Friday morning. “Members continue to do their due diligence with the information that has been provided despite the lack of state tax information.”

Taxes came up during the Friday meeting between Williams’ supporters and Sen. DiSanto’s chief of staff Chuck Erdman, who said that information filed about her part-year residency could clear up remaining doubts. A call left for Williams’ attorney was not immediately returned.

But by Friday afternoon, at least one prominent Republican had changed his tune. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati released a statement saying he would recommend Williams be seated, while leaving the door open to revisiting the subject if new documents were submitted.

Williams’ office released a statement declaring she would be seated and thanked Scarnati for his “extremely fair and thorough” evaluation of her residency qualifications.

Williams has already hired a staff, opened a district office, and received a paycheck.

How could the GOP refuse to seat her?

There are a few ways, and each is complicated.

Typically, the result of each member’s election is read on swearing-in day and then lawmakers are sworn-in together. Hypothetically, a senator could motion to table the reading of Williams’ results. That would not be debatable and would be voted on immediately. Republicans hold a majority in the chamber, so it’s fair to assume the motion would pass. At that point, Democrats could agree to a special election or take the matter to court. The latter option seems more likely.

Senate Republicans could also send the matter to the Rules Committee for review. That committee is controlled by the GOP.

If Williams isn’t seated, We the People’s Kenner said there will be acts of civil disobedience in the capitol on Jan. 1.

Is there a law or something that allows this?

The Pennsylvania Constitution gives the power to determine qualifications of members to respective chambers.

What’s the more traditional route for residency challenges?

Candidates are required to sign an affidavit affirming their qualifications and to submit a certain number of petition signatures (it depends on the office sought).

An individual then has seven days to challenge that information. No one did that for Williams. Her residency was challenged in court in October, but a judge dismissed the case because the time to file a challenge had long passed.

But again, the state constitution ultimately gives the power to determine the qualifications of members to the body in which they serve.

So, are Democrats pretty mad?

Are they ever! Picking up the 38th district seat, which was previously held by Republican Randy Vulakovich, was a major score for Democrats, and they see this effort as little more than an attempt to steal that election.

What happens next?

For now, it looks like Republicans will accept Williams’ explanation and seat her on Jan. 1.

The less likely end game is a special election. It would probably happen at the same time as a special election in the neighboring 37th district, where Republican Guy Reschenthaler is heading to Congress.

For a definitive answer, you’ll probably have to wait for 2019.

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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