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Democrats retain the Pennsylvania House with a special election victory


HARRISBURG, Pa. – Democrats maintained their narrow Pennsylvania House majority on Tuesday by winning a special election and with it continued control over how the chamber will handle abortion, gun rights and election legislation.

Heather Boyd won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives representing suburban Philadelphia, beating Republican Katie Ford for a vacancy created by Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel’s resignation. Zabel left the Legislature in March shortly after a lobbyist accused him of sexual harassment.

Boyd’s victory gives Democrats 102 seats, the minimum needed to control the agenda in the 203-member House. The state senate has a Republican majority.

The Democratic victory in the Delaware County district means first-term Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro will have at least one chamber to help his agenda heading into the final month of budget negotiations. The outcome could also affect a proposed constitutional amendment limiting abortion rights, which legislative Republicans are one vote away from the House floor from putting before voters as a referendum.

Boyd is a former congressional and state legislator. Her district was once Republican but has given solid margins to Democratic candidates in recent elections.

Echoing the effort, President Joe Biden endorsed fellow Democrat Boyd on Monday, calling her “a seasoned public servant who will protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, stand up for common sense gun safety laws and expand access to voting rights.”

Boyd emphasized the protection of abortion rights, drawing a contrast with Ford, who personally opposes abortion but says she did not want to change existing state law. Republicans had hoped to regain the majority, in part to advance the proposed constitutional amendment that says the Pennsylvania Constitution does not guarantee any rights related to abortion or public funding of abortions.

Ford criticized Boyd, who has been a leading Democratic Party official in Delaware County, for not doing more in response when she learned of the charges against Zabel. Boyd said she respected the lobbyist’s request for confidentiality about her claim that Zabel fondled her leg while they discussed legislation outside the Capitol in 2018 and did not stop when she moved away from him.

“Common sense says if someone comes to you and says they’re being sexually harassed, you do something about it,” Ford said during a televised debate. “You don’t just let it go.” Boyd responded that she did not support or endorse Zabel after hearing about the lobbyist’s account, and says she tried unsuccessfully to find someone to run against Zabel.

Republicans entered the 2022 election with a 113-90 advantage in the state House, but Democrats flipped a net 12 seats in November, barely enough to claim majority status after 12 years and elect one of their own as speaker.

In another special House election Tuesday, Republican Michael Stender kept the central Pennsylvania seat in his party’s hands.

Stender, a Shikellamy school board member, firefighter and former EMT, was endorsed by former Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, the Republican who represented the district before winning a special election to the Senate earlier this year. Stender beat Democrat Trevor Finn, a Montour County commissioner. The district also includes part of Northumberland County.

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