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Year’s biggest political developments in Pa., N.J.: maps, clergy scandal, feuding Dems

Big political developments of 2018 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Sen. Cory Booker speaking in September during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Booker won praise from progressives for his performance.
Sen. Cory Booker speaking in September during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Booker won praise from progressives for his performance.Read moreAlex Brandon / AP File

These days, the political news cycle is measured in minutes, sometimes less than that if certain tweeting fingers get twitchy. It pays to step back for a little perspective. Here are seven significant 2018 Pennsylvania and New Jersey political stories that will continue to reverberate as the calendar turns to 2019:

1. Gerrymandering

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court caused a political earthquake in early 2018 when it declared the state’s GOP-drawn congressional map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and imposed a new one that upended the midterm campaign.

The decision, combined with President Donald Trump’s dismal approval ratings in the Philadelphia suburbs amid long-term demographic changes there, helped pave the way for Democratic gains in November.

READ MORE: Pennsylvania, gerrymandered: A guide to Pa.’s congressional map redistricting fight

New Jersey Democrats tried a last-minute heist of that state’s legislative map in a bid to entrench their power via a constitutional amendment. They dropped the proposal this month amid backlash from progressive activists and national Democrats such as former Attorney General Eric Holder.

This issue isn’t going away. Former President Barack Obama said last week he would direct his energy toward redistricting reform.

2. Year of the Woman

It was a Year of the Woman in American politics: A record number of women were elected to Congress and state legislatures.

The story was similar here. In Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, all four newly elected Democrats are women, most from the Philadelphia suburbs. Previously, there were no women in the delegation.

Now the question is whether and how often the Democratic-led House will work with Trump or seek to keep him in check. We may get a read on that almost as soon as the new Congress is sworn in, as lawmakers have yet to reach a deal with Trump to end the partial government shutdown.

In Harrisburg, the General Assembly will be more diverse than ever next term. But the state isn’t close to anything resembling gender parity. Even with significant gains this year, women will make up just 25 percent of the legislature.

READ MORE: After another ‘Year of the Woman,’ how close is Pa. to gender parity in politics? (Not very)

3. Trump-like candidates lose, and Casey 2020 chatter begins

Democrats surfed a wave election across the country in 2018, propelled by dissatisfaction with Trump and his administration. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Scranton seeking a third term, enjoyed the ride.

Casey easily defeated the Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Hazleton, by 13 points. This despite Barletta’s receiving publicity and fund-raising assistance through two visits to Pennsylvania by Trump, who recruited him for the race.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner, who like Barletta drew comparisons to Trump, also lost big, to Gov. Tom Wolf.

Casey’s easy victory, in a year when his party’s national successes were limited mostly to the House, sparked some discussion about his being a potential player in the 2020 presidential race.

Casey did not embrace or reject that talk, and deftly used a county-by-county analysis of how well he did in 2018 to illuminate a path for a Democratic presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania in 2020.

4. Clergy sex-abuse report

A Pennsylvania statewide grand jury in August stunned the Roman Catholic Church, releasing a report showing a cover-up of sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests, with some allegations stretching back as far as seven decades.

Two issues swiftly arose. Many of the pages in the nearly 900-page report were redacted to remove identifying information for two dozen or so clerics. And the state’s statute of limitations for many of the alleged victims to file civil lawsuits had expired.

Would there be more transparency? And would the General Assembly give alleged victims more time? The answer to both turned out to be no.

Despite calls from the grand jury to make the full report public, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December ruled that the redactions would stay in place. And efforts to lift the statute of limitations stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro accused the Vatican of knowing about the abuse and the church’s efforts at a cover-up.

The Vatican had called the abuse “criminally and morally reprehensible,” and Pope Francis asked for forgiveness and pledged to better address sexual abuse allegations going forward.

Most of the dioceses in the state have started or will launch compensation funds for victims who have aged out of the statute of limitations. Other states have followed Pennsylvania’s lead.

5. Bob Brady retires from Congress

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, called it quits in the U.S. House in January 2018 after two decades as a congressman.

Brady said his decision was driven by a desire to spend more time with his family and an anticipated redrawing of congressional district maps, not the federal investigation into campaign spending during his 2012 bid for reelection.

Brady was not charged with any crime and remains in charge of the local Democratic Party.

One of his campaign consultants, Donald “D.A.” Jones, pleaded guilty and testified against another, Ken Smukler, who challenged federal prosecutors in court and was found guilty on nine of 11 counts.

At the heart of the case was a federal claim that Brady’s political action committee was used to funnel $90,000 through Smukler and Jones to induce a 2012 primary challenger, former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore, to drop out of that race.

Smukler insisted the money from Brady’s PAC was meant in large part to purchase a detailed poll commissioned by Moore, who cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty to not reporting the money on campaign finance reports.

6. With Christie gone, N.J. Dems fight each other

Gov. Phil Murphy started the post-Chris Christie era in Trenton with some progressive wins, signing a pay-equity measure, college financial aid for some undocumented immigrants, and mandatory paid sick leave.

But he’s been unable to push through the big-ticket ideas he campaigned on, such as legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. On these and other issues, he has hit roadblocks from members of his own party, notably Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

It’s no secret that Murphy and Sweeney (who wanted to be governor) don’t get along or even talk much. Things might get worse as the Democratic-controlled Legislature continues to investigate the Murphy administration’s handling of sexual-assault allegations made against a former high-ranking official.

One development worth watching: whether New Jersey’s debate over pot influences Wolf, who said this month that it’s “time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana.” One roadblock? The Republican-led legislature is unlikely to agree.

7. Booker 2020?

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker had a solid 2018, winning praise from progressives for his combative performance during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and championing a bipartisan overhaul of the criminal justice system.

In the new year, Booker (D., N.J.) is expected to announce his candidacy for president. About two dozen Democrats are said to be mulling a shot at taking on Trump, so it seems a little early to start handicapping Booker’s chances.

Another well-known Jersey pol, Christie, ran in a crowded field in 2016 and flamed out early.

Whatever happens this time, we’re pretty sure Booker won’t end up endorsing Trump.