Katie Muth’s assigned seat in the Pennsylvania Senate is near several Republicans who don’t wear face masks on the chamber floor.
“I call it COVID alley,” said Muth, a Montgomery County Democrat. So in October, she brought a new desk into the chamber and set it up in the corner instead. She felt safer.
Muth’s forced social distancing was emblematic of a vitriolic year in Harrisburg — an environment unlikely to mellow in 2021.
While most Pennsylvanians can shelter in their political bubbles while they disagree about the severity of the pandemic and the reality of Joe Biden’s election win, in Harrisburg, elected officials have clashed over those same things while sitting right next to one another or on tense Zoom calls.
For months, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature were in a political battle over Wolf’s coronavirus emergency powers — a pitched disagreement over government’s role in a pandemic that has seemed to deepen divisions on other issues as lawmakers hear from constituents afraid of getting sick or losing work.
It culminated in a November hearing at a Gettysburg hotel, where a committee composed solely of Republicans gave President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani a platform to air baseless allegations about election fraud that were either rejected by courts or so outlandish that Trump’s campaign never even formally put them before a judge.
A state senator later tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the indoor hearing without a mask, while the top Senate Republican acknowledged that “mistakes were made.” And earlier this month, more than 60 state GOP lawmakers — including the two House leaders — wrote a letter asking Congress to reject the results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania and effectively disenfranchise the whole state.
The drama may stem partly from the confluence of a highly anticipated presidential election and the biggest public health crisis in a century. But there’s also little reason to believe next year will herald any new bipartisan comity in Harrisburg. Republicans warned Wolf this month not to “cancel” Christmas with his latest coronavirus restrictions. And Democratic lawmakers want their maskless GOP colleagues to be sworn in after everyone else for safety when the new General Assembly convenes in January.
“I think we reached a new level of partisanship, because now we have partisan approaches to dealing with disease, and we also have partisan differences on how to tabulate votes,” said State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.).
Among the top items on the agenda next year is redistricting. Republicans still resent the state Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to throw out the old congressional map and draw a new one, and few Harrisburg observers expect a kumbaya moment this time.
Tensions over Pennsylvania’s presidential election and implementation of the state’s new mail voting law persist, with several Republicans saying they’ll push for changes.
As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to mount, Wolf may impose new business restrictions.
And the jockeying to succeed Wolf, whose second term ends after 2022, will loom over everything.
For Republicans, ill will over the Wolf administration’s handling of the election and pandemic lingers. On both fronts, they say Wolf overstepped his authority. They criticized his decision to unilaterally impose restrictions on businesses, and called the rules arbitrary.
“We felt like we were not included much in the process. ... In some ways it felt like dictatorial authority,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre). “It was just very frustrating, circumventing the representative government.”
And Republicans accused the administration of issuing election guidance to counties that went beyond the scope of Act 77, the 2019 law that expanded mail voting.
“That created chaos and confusion,” said Rep. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland).
Wolf’s spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger defended the governor’s actions as appropriate to safeguard people’s lives and Pennsylvanians’ right to vote.
“In these unprecedented times, we don’t have the luxury of pointing fingers and engaging in a blame game with members of the General Assembly,” she said.
Rothman was among the 64 Republican lawmakers who signed a letter urging Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to object to the state’s electors. That effort will almost certainly fail, but if it succeeded, it would nullify Biden’s 81,000-vote win in Pennsylvania — despite the fact that Republicans expanded their majority in the state House in the same election they say cannot be trusted.
Boyle called the letter an “affront to democracy.”
Rothman said Republicans will push for changes to election law. While Rothman said Pennsylvania’s election result is accurate, he “has concerns about the process.” He acknowledged some colleagues do not believe Biden won.
“Look, just because you and I don’t agree on something, and yeah, maybe who won the presidency is a big deal ... it doesn’t mean we can’t agree on something else,” Rothman said.
There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Trump’s campaign itself hasn’t presented any such evidence in its numerous legal challenges contesting the result. Rather, its legal efforts have been aimed at disqualifying votes that all evidence shows were legitimately cast under rules they disagree with. The postelection controversy has been stirred almost entirely by unfounded claims of fraud.
To Democrats, the letter to Congress was a more troubling sign: emblematic of a party that, they say, has ignored science and downplayed the pandemic, and more recently given credence to Trump’s false claims of fraud.
“This is not a charade,” said Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Phila.), the new House minority leader. “There are people who unfortunately are falling victim to this misinformation, and as a result I expect my colleagues, even the most right-wing ... to just be honest with their constituents even if they’re upset with the outcome.”
The pandemic made political disagreements more personal this year.
In May, after several GOP members tested positive and didn’t immediately inform their Democratic colleagues, Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.) posted an emotionally charged tirade accusing Republicans of putting the health of lawmakers and their families at risk. In July, Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) was criticized for sharing what many saw as an anti-LGBTQ Facebook post referencing Secretary of Health Rachel Levine (he denied his post was anti-LGBTQ). Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) was booed by colleagues in a floor speech about protecting service workers when he brought up increasing the minimum wage.
It’s unclear how the bitterness will affect actual legislating in 2021. Lawmakers put aside big-picture disagreements in 2020 to pass a budget and a bipartisan police reform bill, though plenty of legislation never advanced.
“What strikes me,” Kenyatta said, is “for all the session days we had, how little we actually accomplished this year. Even when there were things that there was broad bipartisan support for.”
And now there are fewer and fewer moderates in Harrisburg to cut deals.
As the electorate has become more polarized and geographically fragmented — with Democratic voters concentrated in the Philadelphia region and Pittsburgh, and Republicans just about everywhere else — so, too, have lawmakers.
That trend continued this election, with moderates like Republican State Sen. Tom Killion of Delaware County and State Rep. Frank Dermody, the House Democratic leader from Allegheny County, both losing their seats.
“When I joined in 2011, I was serving with literally dozens of pro-life, pro-gun Democrats from Western Pennsylvania, Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Boyle said.
“You’re just seeing less agreement because you have more polarized parties,” he said. “You don’t have western Blue Dog Democrats and the Philly suburban or Northeast Philly Republicans like [former House Speaker] John Perzel.”
Tom Murt, a moderate Republican who represented heavily Democratic Montgomery County for 13 years, retired this year. His parting advice for colleagues was to find ways to work together.
“At some point the majorities change, and if you have a reputation of not ever working with the other party in good faith, people remember,” he said.
Lawmakers in both parties nevertheless said they are optimistic about 2021. Benninghoff pointed to a short-term transportation funding deal he and other legislative leaders reached this month with Wolf to avoid furloughs and shutting down projects. “Let’s make 2021 the year of the great recovery, the year of great cooperation,” Benninghoff said.
Some newly elected members said they’re determined to try to break through the divisions.
“Maybe some new faces and fresh voices and reaching across the aisle to figure out what the tone should look like and sound like might help,” said Sen.-elect Amanda Cappelletti, a Democrat who will represent parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties.
But Muth isn’t betting on a more productive session. For one thing, she wasn’t allowed to keep her new isolated desk. A Senate employee alerted Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati to the situation, Muth said, and Scarnati told Democratic Minority Leader Jay Costa that she had violated “decorum.”
Muth had to move to another desk. A Senate GOP spokesperson said that each caucus controls where its members sit and that senators are able to participate via Zoom if they prefer.
Following the episode, Muth gave the Senate employee who told on her a package wrapped with five face masks and a note detailing the number of deaths linked to COVID-19. She wrote: “Worry about stopping the spread instead of decorum.”