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• McKeesporter steps aside as others are sworn in
• Republicans remove Fetterman as presiding officer
• Gov. Wolf calls move ‘shameful power grab’
(This story was written by Jason Togyer from press pool reporting by Elizabeth Hardison of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, with additional coverage from the official video feed of the Pennsylvania State Senate at pasen.gov.)
State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport poses for a photo with state Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia before Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony. The Republican leadership is holding Brewster’s 45th District seat vacant after an election challenge by Nicole Ziccarelli of Lower Burrell. (Photo via Twitter @SenatorHughes)
Shouting broke out in the Pennsylvania senate on Tuesday after the Republican majority refused to swear-in state Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport for his third full term.
The dispute has turned a national political spotlight on the 45th Senatorial District, which includes the city, most of the Mon Valley, Monroeville, Plum and part of the Alle-Kiski Valley in Westmoreland County, and which is now without a state senator.
Republican senate leaders have not said when they expect to resolve the situation, but Democrats are vowing to fight to get Brewster sworn back into office.
Brewster has been certified by both state and county officials with winning re-election to the 45th District by fewer than 70 votes. During a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday afternoon, he stepped forward to take the oath of office along with nine other Democratic senators.
But state Sen. Jake Corman, Republican of Centre County, serving as president pro tempore, said the oath would not be administered unless Brewster left the rostrum.
Brewster, who has served as 45th District senator since winning a special election in 2010, agreed to step aside so that the other senators could be seated.
State Sen. Kim Ward, Republican of Westmoreland County — who represents the district that adjoins Brewster’s district to the east — made the formal request that no one be seated in the 45th District.
Ward is the new majority leader in the state senate.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called Tuesday’s events a “shameful power grab.”
“Republicans in Pennsylvania and nationally have spread disinformation and used it to subvert the democratic process,” Wolf said in a prepared statement. “Sen. Jim Brewster rightfully won the 45th Senate District, but Senate Republicans are ignoring the voters in the district and refusing to swear him in as senator.
“It is simply unethical and undemocratic to leave the district without a voice simply because the Republicans don’t like the outcome of the election,” Wolf said. “Voters, not Harrisburg politicians, decided this election, and Sen. Brewster is the rightful winner.”
State Sen. Ryan Aument, Republican of Lancaster County, said from the floor that senators have authority under Pennsylvania’s constitution to delay Brewster’s swearing-in because they are allowed to judge "the elections and qualifications" of senators.
But Democrats, including Brewster’s attorney, Clifford Levine of Pittsburgh, have argued that the senate is only allowed to determine whether a senator is eligible to hold office, not decide the results of an election.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, Democrat of Philadelphia, called Tuesday’s ceremony a “farce” and attempted to read the results of the election into the official record, but Corman and other Republicans talked over him and pressed on.
The returns give Brewster 66,261 to 66,192 vote lead over his Republican challenger, Nicole Ziccarelli of Lower Burrell.
“I’m not sure what the hell we’re doing,” said Williams, who accused Republicans of staging a “takeover of the government.”
Earlier in the ceremony, Republicans voted to remove the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democrat of Braddock, after Fetterman demanded that Republicans read the results of the 45th District race.
Following the vote to remove Fetterman as presiding officer, Corman began presiding over the chamber, but Fetterman at first refused to step down from the platform.
He left a short time later, telling reporters he had “no desire” to ruin the ceremony.
“It came down to, there’s got to be a way for both sides to maintain their dignity and we can find a way forward,” Fetterman told reporters afterward. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
Ziccarelli is suing the Allegheny County Board of Elections and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. She has asked for 311 mail-in ballots to be rejected because they were date-stamped by county elections officials, not with handwritten dates by voters.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Allegheny County to count the ballots.
Ziccarelli’s attorneys have argued that the lack of a handwritten date violates state election law and alleged that county and state officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
If those ballots were not counted, Ziccarelli has argued, she would have won the election by 20 to 25 votes.
A federal judge has not yet issued his decision in the case.
On Friday night, Ziccarelli announced that she had filed a challenge to Brewster’s re-election with the State Senate.
Monday, Corman said the Senate would not seat anyone in the 45th District until the body had a chance to review Ziccarelli’s petition.
The swearing-in ceremony is usually a pro forma affair, featuring family members of incoming senators and well-wishers. Attendance at this year’s event was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday’s events began on a note of rancor after state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, Democrat from Bucks County, pointed out that several Republican senators were not wearing face masks, as required by senate rules to slow the spread of COVID-19.
After the Republican decision not to allow Brewster to take the oath, Republicans nominated Corman to serve as president pro tempore.
State Sen. Jay Costa Jr., Democrat of Forest Hills, urged other senators not to vote for Corman, saying that he had failed to fulfill his responsibilities in a non-partisan way. Political observers called the move highly unusual, noting that the president pro tempore is usually elected by members of both parties.
Ward asked Costa to cede the floor, saying that his remarks were “off topic.”
Following a 31-18 vote — mainly on party lines — to name Corman president pro tem, Corman began to make his acceptance speech, but Costa led a walk-out of Democratic senators.
Tuesday’s events, and the failure to allow Brewster to take his seat, mark an ugly beginning to what The Philadelphia Inquirer has already predicted will be a divisive session in Harrisburg.
Both the state General Assembly and state Senate are controlled by Republicans. The 2019-2020 legislative session was marked by bitterness, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many Republicans, and some Democrats, objected to orders from Wolf, a Democrat, that forced schools to switch to remote learning and businesses to close or restrict their operations.
Inquirer reporters Andrew Seidman and Julia Terruso predicted that the 2021-2022 session will be marked by fights over drawing new legislative and congressional districts — which happens after 10 years, following a U.S. Census — as well as senators positioning themselves to run for governor in 2022, when Wolf’s second term ends.
Originally published January 05, 2021.