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Court greenlights holding Pa. House special elections Feb. 7
A Pennsylvania court says special elections to fill three vacancies in Democratic-leaning Pittsburgh area state House districts will be held together next month, with partisan control of the chamber at stake
  • Updated

HARRISBURG – A Pennsylvania court ruled Friday that special elections to fill three vacancies in Democratic-leaning state House districts will be held together next month, with partisan control of the chamber at stake.

A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel sided with the House’s Democratic floor leader, Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, who had moved to fill all three Allegheny County seats together on Feb. 7.

The decision was a loss for Rep. Bryan Cutler, the Lancaster Republican who heads up his caucus in the House, and whose lawsuit sought to delay two of the special elections until the May primary.

The order signed by Democratic Judge Michael Wojcik, which did not come with an opinion fully detailing its reasoning, said Cutler did not prove he has a clear right to what he was seeking or that the injunction he wanted was in the public interest.

Wojcik wrote that he agreed with McClinton’s argument that Cutler was asking the court to take up issues that are not appropriate for the courts.

The judge said Cutler sought rulings on “nonjusticiable political questions regarding which party in the House of Representatives has the majority and, concomitantly, who in the House of Representatives has authority to act as Majority Leader” and issue writs of election in the interim period between the end of the last two-year legislative session on Nov. 30 and the start of the current session earlier this month.

Cutler released a statement that accused the court of ignoring basic math and prior law.

“Instead of resolving a dispute where the answer was self-evident based on the numbers, the court took the path of least resistance and thereby weakened the foundations of our republic and faith in the rule of law,” he said.

McClinton’s press secretary issued a statement calling the decision “good news for the nearly 200,000 Allegheny County residents currently without representation in the state House.”

Democrats won 102 seats in the November election, but one of their reelected incumbents died of cancer in October and two others resigned in December because they were also elected to higher offices.

In an argument session this week, Allegheny County officials told the judges that preparations were well underway to conduct the three special elections on Feb. 7, with ballots ready to be printed and most polling places and elections workers in place.

Cutler had previously consented to fill the late Rep. Tony DeLuca’s seat on Feb. 7, but wanted to wait several months to hold special elections for districts most recently represented by former Rep. Austin Davis, who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor next week, and by now freshman U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.

The three vacancies have left Republicans with a temporary 101-99 majority, but the GOP may lose a member later this month. Republican state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver of Northumberland County hopes to win a state Senate special election and fill a seat held most recently by John Gordner, a Republican who resigned mid-term to become a Senate lawyer.

The narrow partisan breakdown in the House led members last week to elect Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, as a self-styled independent speaker, on the strength of all Democratic votes and 16 Republicans.

Rozzi announced Thursday the makeup of a group of six state representatives, three from each party, who will advise him on potential rules for the 2023-24 session. The Speaker’s Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward will seek “a bipartisan agreement to end gridlock in the House,” Rozzi’s office said in announcing it will begin work Tuesday.

editor's pick
Greene native among Shapiro's picks for top public safety roles

Incoming Gov. Josh Shapiro announced several Cabinet appointments on social media Friday, including a Greene County native to lead the state’s Department of Corrections.

Pending Senate confirmation, Laurel Harry will serve as the state’s Secretary of Corrections, and will be the first woman to do so. Shapiro also announced other picks for top public safety positions, including Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency; Maj. Gen. Mark Schindler for adjutant general; Tom Cook for fire commissioner, and Col. Christopher Paris for state police commissioner.

Originally from Waynesburg, Harry earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling from West Virginia University, according to a press release from Shapiro’s office. In 2019, she earned a doctorate in criminal justice from California University of Pennsylvania, now PennWest California.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to both be safe and feel safe in their communities, and these experienced leaders will help us address critical shortages among frontline workers and ensure our police officers, firefighters, service members, and veterans have the support they deserve,” Shapiro said in the release. “Working together, we will ensure the commonwealth is prepared to respond to emergencies and continue the work to protect Pennsylvanians and make our communities safer.”

According to the press release, Harry began her 24-year career with the Department of Corrections in 1999 as a drug and alcohol treatment specialist at SCI-Waynesburg, which has since closed.

Since then she has worked at several other facilities, including SCI Greene, Fayette, Greensburg and Graterford. In 2012 she became the superintendent at SCI Camp Hill. Most recently she has been serving as the acting western region deputy secretary for the Department of Corrections.

“I am proud to serve in Governor-elect Shapiro’s Cabinet, and I look forward to working with him to enhance public safety across the commonwealth,” said Laurel Harry in the release. “With over two decades of commonwealth experience in the Department of Corrections – from managing staff and inmates to overseeing drug and alcohol treatment programs – I know we can address the root causes of crime in Pennsylvania while making our communities safer.

“As secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, I will lead the administration’s efforts to reduce criminal behavior by providing individualized treatment and education to inmates, supporting all Department of Corrections staff, and ensuring those who have served their time can successfully reintegrate into our communities.”

Shapiro will be inaugurated as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor on Tuesday. Cabinet picks require a simple majority in the state Senate to be confirmed.

Monongahela man who fatally shot wife pleads guilty to murder

The Monongahela man who shot and killed his wife at their home during a domestic dispute last year pleaded guilty to third-degree homicide Friday and was immediately sentenced to prison.

Dennis Vaccaro, 65, pleaded guilty in Washington County Court to third-degree murder in the March 23 shooting death of his 47-year-old wife, Mecca, outside their home at 533 Park Ave. after the couple had gotten into an argument moments before.

Judge Brandon Neuman immediately sentenced Vaccaro to serve nine to 20 years in a state prison as part of the plea deal negotiated with prosecutors.

Two children of Mecca Vaccaro spoke during the sentencing hearing and told the judge about how they were reconnecting with their mother and trying to bring the family together before she was killed. Her son, Montana Howard, said he and his six siblings had become “lost, confused, isolated” after her death.

“We’ve been having a hard time getting connected for so long,” Howard said. “I don’t want this moment to ruin it. That’s what my mom would’ve wanted.”

Angel Alston, who was adopted shortly after her birth, said she was just beginning to get to know her biological mother after turning 18. She recalled Mecca asking her to go see a prominent Christmas lights display in West Virginia as a way to connect, but Alston decided not to go, which is a decision she now regrets.

“This situation and crime has left a permanent stain on my heart,” Alston said. “It’s had such a big impact on everyone’s lives. He left a permanent, permanent grieving feeling in our hearts.”

Dennis Vaccaro, who was shackled and wearing orange jail clothes, did not look at Howard or Alston as they spoke. But when they were finished, he turned around and offered a short apology.

“I’m sorry,” Vaccaro said before shaking his head and turning back to face the judge.

According to court documents, Vaccaro was loading scaffolding into his work truck with another person when Mecca came out and began arguing with him. That person, Eric Scicchitano, testified during the April preliminary hearing that Mecca struck Vaccaro multiple times and pulled a hooded sweatshirt over his head and dragged him a few feet. After the argument ended, Vaccaro realized he did not have keys to the truck, so he went inside to retrieve them when Scicchitano testified he heard more shouting.

Moments later, Scicchitano said he heard two gunshots that were spaced out. When he went toward the house, he saw Mecca lying on the ground and Vaccaro standing a few feet away holding a handgun. She was taken by ambulance to Penn Highlands Mon Valley Hospital, where she died from the gunshot wounds.

Vaccaro’s defense attorney, Adam Yarussi, previously argued that his client had acted in self-defense, but investigators said they found no physical injuries on the defendant’s body.

Vaccaro has been held without bond at the Washington County jail since the shooting, and he will be given credit for time served. He is expected to be transported to SCI-Camp Hill state prison, where he will be evaluated and sent to another state prison for the duration of his sentence.

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