A Look at Pennsylvania

Posted October 10, 2003 at 6:10pm

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the Keystone State.

Philadelphia is known almost equally for its cheesesteaks (made with Whiz, not swiss), constitutional history, brotherly love and stalwart Democratic voting. [IMGCAP(1)]

The city has been such a bastion of liberal politics that conventional wisdom had long held that only a Democrat hailing from outside the Keystone State’s south-

eastern corner could be elected statewide in this closely divided commonwealth.

But in 2002, Democrat Ed Rendell disproved that theory, as he became the first former Philadelphia mayor to be elected governor since 1906.

Rendell’s coattails were short, but his victory over state Attorney General Mike Fisher (R) was sizeable, a result largely due to his success in turning out Philly suburbanites who collectively came to be called “Rendell Republicans.”

This same group of socially moderate Republicans is also expected to have a defining impact on the 2004 elections, when Sen. Arlen Specter (R) is counting on their support to help him through what is expected to be his stiffest primary challenge to date.

After several names were floated during a lengthy recruiting period, Democrats finally wooed Northeast Philadelphia/Montgomery County-based Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) to run for Senate in 2004, again ensuring that the general election contest will be decided among the 40 percent of the state’s population that resides in the greater Philadelphia media market.

“If the Democratic candidate at the top of the ticket is moving votes, it doesn’t matter how well the Republican performs in Philadelphia, they’re going to lose it in Montgomery County,” said Ken Smuckler, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant, referring to Rendell’s suburban strength.

But while there has been considerable focus on this cycle’s Senate contest — and the Republican primary featuring Specter and Rep. Pat Toomey (R) — the best place to look for rising political stars is the list of names who passed up running for Senate in 2004 and the long line of would-be challengers to Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2006.

Two of the highest profile names who discussed running next year with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) were Marsha Perelman, the president and CEO of a Philadelphia energy company and Billy King, general manager of the city’s National Basketball Association team, the 76ers.

Perelman is the sister-in-law of Revlon cosmetics mogul Ron Perelman, and she could bring considerable resources to any race she decided to enter. She is a former president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Zoo and comes from a well-known Philadelphia-area family that has been a major donor to the city’s arts programs.

King, who is in his late 30s and is one of the most high-profile black executives in the state, has said that a run for office is almost certainly in his future.

“I appreciate them thinking of me, because I know at some point in time, I know that politics is something that I will pursue,” King told The Associated Press when he announced he would not run for Specter’s seat next year. “But I think the timing is just not right at this time.”

While both Perelman and King have what some consider to be dream profiles, there are other prominent Democrats more often mentioned as possible 2006 Senate candidates.

Among them are state Sen. Connie Williams (D), heiress to the Hess Oil and Gas fortune, and state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, a Republican who endorsed Rendell’s gubernatorial bid. Hafer recently added more fuel to speculation that she will switch parties and run as a Democrat in 2006 by endorsing Allegheny County Controller Dan Onorato (D), who running for the county’s chief executive position against the man who chaired her first statewide campaign.

A onetime Democrat, Hafer, like Santorum, hails from the western part of the state.

Williams, meanwhile, represents the wealthy Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. She had been mentioned as a possible challenger to freshman Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) next year, but she appears more interested in the 2006 contest.

Gerlach narrowly defeated attorney Dan Wofford (D) last year in a race that received little attention from the national party until the final weeks of the campaign.

Wofford, the son of former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), has said he will not run for the seat again in 2004, but there is little doubt he has political life left.

On the Republican side, Chester County Controller Carol Aichelle, who plans to run for county commissioner, is an up and comer who could run whenever there’s an opportunity in Gerlach’s 6th district. State Rep. Melissa Murphy Weber (R) is also seen as a rising star in the district.

Meanwhile, Hoeffel’s name is also bantered around in the 2006 Senate mix. When Hoeffel announced that he would run for Senate in 2004, speculation immediately began swirling that the statewide race could be an effort to position himself to run against Santorum in 2006, assuming he loses next year’s race by a respectably narrow margin. Hoeffel, who won his Democratic-leaning House district last year with only 51 percent of the vote, has denied that his motives are anything but to win in 2004.

Some of the state’s rising political talent is also being showcased in the two open-seat House races created by next year’s Senate race.

In the 13th district, state Sen. Allyson Schwartz (D) and outgoing National Constitution Center President Joe Torsella (D) are considered the two heaviest hitters in the race to succeed Hoeffel. Torsella, a close ally of Rendell, will reportedly show that he had raised more than $414,000 by the end of September, less than a month after he announced his candidacy.

Schwartz, who has the backing of EMILY’s List, has reportedly raised more than $600,000 for her campaign so far, and early numbers indicate this will be a costly, and likely bloody, primary.

Even if Torsella doesn’t win the primary, he is still viewed as someone with a bright political future.

“Torsella is clearly an up and comer,” Smuckler said. “That guy clearly has the résumé that would make for a good Congressional candidate.”

In the 15th district race to replace Toomey, national Republicans are elated over their recruitment of dynamic state Sen. Charlie Dent (R). Dent, who has the backing of the state’s Republican House delegation, faces a three-way primary but is expected to win the GOP nod next year. Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to field a candidate in the Allentown-based swing district. One of their top prospects, state Rep. T.J. Rooney, opted to take over as chairman of the state Democratic Party instead, but look for him to make more political moves in the future. Rooney has said he knows he has a great race ahead of him, he’s just not sure when and for what office.

Another Democratic state legislator often mentioned as an up and comer in the 15th district is state Rep. Jennifer Mann, who is running for auditor general in 2004.