A special election for a legislative seat in the Philadelphia suburbs would normally be a quiet affair, but with control of the Pennsylvania House at stake, the campaign to replace former state Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, is unusually intense.
Zabel resigned in March after several women accused him of sexual harassment. The House Democrats’ narrow 102-101 majority survived the scandal only because Republicans were also down a vote after a member of their caucus was elected to the state Senate in January.
Now, Democratic nominee Heather Boyd and Republican nominee Katie Ford are running what one volunteer called a “knock-and-drag” campaign to turn out voters en masse in a typically low-participation municipal primary.
Democrats Keeping Pennsylvania House Majority Hinges on Electing Heather Boyd | Access to abortion in Pennsylvania could be decided in Delaware County’s May 16 special election. https://t.co/MwrflmuKwt— BucksCountyBeacon (@BucksCoBeacon) May 2, 2023
While the candidates are promoting themselves to voters on their strengths – as a legislative staffer in Boyd’s case and as a community volunteer, mother and veteran in Ford’s – their campaign ads ahead of the May 16 primary have been sharply critical of the other.
The House Democratic Campaign Committee enlisted Gov. Josh Shapiro to appear in an ad airing on Philadelphia area television stations in which the Democrat urges Delaware County voters to elect Boyd to stop Republicans from putting a veto-proof abortion ban on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
Another ad by the House Democratic Campaign Committee states, “Katie Ford will give MAGA Republicans the majority they desperately want and that’s downright dangerous. They’re counting on Katie Ford to be the deciding vote to make every abortion in Pennsylvania illegal.”
Ford deflected the notion that her election would lead to a change in Pennsylvania’s abortion law, and called Boyd’s positions on abortion extreme.
Boyd has said protecting women’s rights to bodily autonomy is a paramount reason she is running and that with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the need to fight efforts to restrict abortion access in Pennsylvania is more dire than ever.
Ford also aired a response to an ad critical of her family’s bankruptcy, which Ford said was the result of seeking care for her autistic son.
But Ford’s sharpest criticism of her opponent has been her accusation that Boyd was complicit in a coverup of Zabel’s problematic conduct.
Ford cited a March article in The Philadelphia Inquirer in which Boyd said that Zabel’s accuser had confided in her enlisted one of Zabel’s alleged victims to condemn Boyd for not revealing what she knew.
“You can’t go around telling people you’re a champion of women and the #MeToo movement and not share what you know,” Ford told the Capital-Star.
About two weeks before the May 16 election, the House Republican Campaign Committee published and circulated what appears to be a free independent newspaper, complete with a children’s connect-the-dots puzzle, with headlines declaring “Zabel resigns amid coverup” and “Boyd knew, but fought to reelect Zabel twice.”
Under the banner “The Delco Independent” the paper also includes an editorial critical of Boyd, state Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, who is chairperson of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, and other Democratic leaders for not replacing Zabel in the 2020 and 2022 elections.
It also alleges that House Democrats failed to act on the accusation against Zabel because they needed his vote to elect House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
Beneath the editorial is a message that reads: “A public service publication for Delaware County paid for by PA HRCC.”
Matthew Jordan, director of the Penn State News Literacy Initiative, said such campaign literature made to look like independent news sources are most common in areas where local journalism has been eroded by cost-cutting media conglomerates.
The Delaware County Daily Times is owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund notorious for acquiring local newspapers and stripping them of assets.
“The look of the publication … means that people associate them with journalism, and the ethic of verified reporting, they are more effective at getting partisan messaging out,” Jordan said.
The campaign’s pitched messaging is driven by the reality that while Zabel’s former 163rd Legislative District would be a safe Democratic seat in an election with presidential or gubernatorial candidates on the ballot, primary participation is dominated by partisan super voters.
Campaign finance reports for contributions through May 1 were due Friday but had not been posted on the Department of State’s website by 5 p.m. Monday.
But the 24-hour reports candidates are required to file daily until the election show considerable amounts of cash flowing into the candidates’ committees in the closing days of the race.
Boyd reported a $50,000 donation from the Service Employees International Union and $10,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.
Ford reported a $30,000 cash infusion from the House Republican Campaign Committee.
“We’re confident that we’re going to win in Delaware County but we’re not taking anything for granted,” Krueger said.
Krueger said the committee has held briefings for Democratic House lawmakers and called on them to contribute from their campaign coffers to support Boyd’s campaign.
“We are running a very very aggressive campaign because we know the majority is at stake,” Krueger said.
Ford describes herself as a life-long resident of Upper Darby who joined the Army Reserves after she graduated from high school. As a mother of three, she became involved as a volunteer in her children’s schools and served as Home and School president.
She works as a behavioral therapist and a political outsider and highlights the contrast with Boyd, who was district director for U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, and also worked for Krueger.
Bob Bozzuto, executive director of the HRCC, said Boyd’s attacks on her opponent highlight her vulnerability as a Democratic Party boss who Bozzuto said failed to stand up against Zabel’s reelection when she knew of at least one accusation against him.
“This is a very difficult district for Republicans to win,” Bozzuto said. “ … But we think the Democrats have put up a very flawed candidate in Heather Boyd.”
Zabel’s downfall began in January when Andi Perez, a lobbyist for Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, disclosed in a public hearing that she had been sexually harassed by a sitting lawmaker in 2019.
Perez called on then-House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to adopt new ethics rules to protect people who work with lawmakers but are not employed by the General Assembly.
While Perez did not initially identify Zabel, rumors circulated and in early March, reports named Zabel as her harasser just as the House voted to adopt rules including a provision to allow anyone to file a harassment complaint against a lawmaker.
At the same time, Republican state Rep. Abby Major, of Armstrong County, and Zabel’s former campaign manager, accused him of inappropriate conduct. Zabel announced he would resign on March 8.
Boyd told the Capital-Star that Perez had confided in her after the incident but Perez did not want to publicly accuse Zabel. She preferred instead to work toward changing the system to give lobbyists and others working with lawmakers an official channel to complain about improper conduct, Boyd said.
“That is not a coverup. That is a trust,” Boyd said. “She was able to change the rules without a single Republican vote.”
Perez said in a statement provided to The Philadelphia Inquirer in March that Boyd was a true ally for keeping her experience private until she was ready to speak about it publicly.
Boyd said she tried to find someone to run against Zabel and considered challenging him herself.
“I would have had to quit my job and I was not able to do that financially for my family,” Boyd said.
Boyd said that as chairperson of the Upper Darby Democratic Committee, she was powerless to stop Zabel from running for reelection. And to share any details of Perez’s experience with those who could would have been a violation of her confidence.
Major, the Republican lawmaker who accused Zabel of following her to her car after an event at a Harrisburg bar in 2022, was protected under the old House sexual harassment rules, Boyd noted, but did not disclose the incident publicly until Democrats took control of the House.
And it was the conservative-leaning online news source Broad + Liberty that identified Zabel as the lawmaker at the center of Perez’s story.
“It’s an unfair thing for a person to have to deal with the victimization of sexual harassment in public like this,” Boyd said.
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