Melissa Cerrato Will Not Be Bullied Into Silence by State Rep. Todd Stephens

The Republican lawmaker’s threat of litigation to “shush” his Democratic challenger suggest he is feeling the heat in PA’s 151st House District race.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Republican State Rep. Todd Stephens doesn’t want voters to know about his anti-choice record. In fact, he is so desperate to hide his record that he sent his Democratic challenger Melissa Cerrato a cease and desist letter to effectively “shush” her from raising her voice and speaking out. 

She will not be silenced. 

“In this moment, in a world post-Dobbs, we need legislators in the statehouse who we can trust with our lives and our livelihoods,” said Cerrato, who is looking to represent PA’s 151st District.

This is Cerrato’s first run for public office. However, she’s not entirely new to politics. As district director for Representative Liz Hanbidge (D-PA 61), she saw up close what effective constituent representation and genuine public service actually look like. And Melissa, or Missy as she’s frequently called – is resolute in her goal to represent people from all walks of life.

Republican incumbent Stephens currently holds the seat has over the course of the last 12 years flip-flopped on at least one very important issue: a woman’s right to choose.

Early on in Stephens’ political career he argued that some believed he was not a strong enough advocate for the pro-life movement. In 2015, during his run for state attorney general, Politics PA quoted Stephens as saying:

“In fact, I have voted in favor of every pro-life bill that has come before me since becoming a member of the House of Representatives. I have also voted against many pro-abortion amendments supported by Planned Parenthood.”

Digging in further, Stephens stated:

“My record is clear – I have stood with the unborn on every pro-life bill that has come before me since I was elected to the House. That is an indisputable fact.”

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, GOP led state legislatures across the country have passed draconian laws that force women to carry to term all pregnancies, with no exceptions for rape, incest or situations that place the life of the mother in danger.

Many perceive these strict anti-abortion laws as a stepping stone to more severe violations of a woman’s civil rights, including access to birth control.

To say these GOP imposed measures have sparked a fire – rekindling renewed interest to vote in the upcoming midterm election – would be an understatement; it’s an inferno.

“This year, there is no room for ‘maybe’ when it comes to protecting our rights,” Cerrato said. “I stepped up to fight for this seat, not because I ever wanted to be a politician, but because what will happen at the state level this year is too important to let the GOP remain in power.” 

The startling, yet predictable, backlash from women and men across the nation, who believe the government has no right to interfere in their personal lives, has divided Pennsylvania into two very distinct camps. Further, it has diminished the ability of some politicians within the Republican Party to pose as “moderates,” including Todd Stephens.

Abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania, but that might change. The PA-GOP-led legislature forced the passage of SB106 late in the evening, just before adjourning for the summer, to prohibit abortion through constitutional amendment.

A handful of Republicans, including Stephens, voted against the measure.

The PA-GOP has attempted slick legislative maneuvers – both subtle and blatant – in recent years, forcing special interest groups and constituents to more closely scrutinize proposed laws, including HB1095, which would change the state’s criminal code.

Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania issued a statement about the legislation:

“House Bill 1095 would add ‘third degree murder of an unborn child’ under Title 18 to the predicate list of crimes that would carry a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9715. Title 18 of the Pennsylvania code explicitly exempts abortion from the acts that may be subject to liability as [an] act constituting murder of an unborn child. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this act in Title 42 would set a dangerous precedent that would further blur the line of “fetal personhood” and potentially threaten pregnant people with investigation and criminalization.”

Stephens had previously earned Planned Parenthood’s endorsement, but not this year. Cerrato has received their support, and she has made it clear that Stephens voted for HB1095.

“My opponent has been on both sides of the access to abortion issue – I truly don’t know where he stands anymore. This year, there is no room for ‘maybe’ when it comes to protecting our rights,” she said.

Cerrato’s reference to Stephens’ favorable vote for the law irritated Stephens. Instead of engaging in a conversation with his opponent, Stephens made his views plain by having his legal counsel submit a cease and desist demand claiming defamation.

Recently, Bucks and Montgomery counties have seen their fair share of litigation involving defamatory claims relating to political matters.

Pennsylvania’s First Congressional Democratic candidate Ashley Ehasz, is currently embroiled in litigation brought by Jim Worthington of the Newtown Athletic Club. Worthington is also suing MoveOn, a progressive public policy advocacy group, along with a local resident. Both lawsuits pertain to the January 06 insurrection.

Clarise Shillinger, who at one time worked for Todd Stephens, and who coordinated the political action committee Keeping Kids in School, is currently suing PA Spotlight, an investigative news organization, for the way they referred to campaign finance funds.

First Amendment attorney Garen Meguerian, who has successfully represented clients entangled in strategic lawsuits against public participation – or SLAPPS – reviewed the cease and desist letter Cerrato received.

“These kinds of threats have become far too common. Politicians should resolve disputes by winning over their constituents with the strength of their arguments and the merits of their policies, not through their lawyers’ cease and desist letters,” Meguerian said.

Melissa Cerrato is on a mission and nothing, not even the threat of a lawsuit, is going to stop her.

Since beginning her campaign, more than 34,000 constituent doors have been knocked, introductions have been made, and meaningful conversations have taken place.

“I am ready to fight for reproductive justice and women across the Commonwealth, because their lives are on the line. Only then can we hope to build a Pennsylvania that works for all of us,” Cerrato concluded.

To register to vote, check your registration, request a vote by mail or absentee ballot for the Nov. 8 election, click here.

Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in Lansdale, PA.

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