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Democrats keep Pennsylvania House majority, positioning party to prevent limits on abortion rights

Katie Ford, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania House of Representatives, votes at her polling place, Drexelbrook Apartments, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Drexel Hill, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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

Heather Boyd won a seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, beating Republican Katie Ford for a vacancy created by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel. Zabel quit the Legislature in March, shortly after a lobbyist accused him of sexually harassing her.

Boyd is a former congressional and state legislative aide. Her district was once Republican but has given solid margins to Democratic candidates in recent elections. Her win gives Democrats 102 seats, the minimum needed to control the agenda in the 203-member House. The state Senate has a Republican majority.

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

Reflecting the stakes, President Joe Biden endorsed fellow Democrat Boyd on Monday, calling her “an experienced 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.”

Shapiro cut an ad focusing on the abortion issue for Boyd, who reported raising more than $1.3 million, including more than $1 million in in-kind advertising from the House Democrats’ campaign arm and the Democratic Party. Ford reported raising about $146,000, more than half of which came from the House Republicans’ campaign arm.

Boyd emphasized protection of abortion rights, drawing a contrast with Ford, who is personally against 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 relating 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 about the allegations against Zabel. Boyd said she respected the lobbyist’s request for confidentiality about her claim that Zabel caressed her leg while they discussed legislation outside the Capitol in 2018 and did not stop when she moved away from him.

“Common sense says that if someone comes to you and says that 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 endorse or support Zabel after hearing of 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 of 12 seats in November, barely enough to claim majority status after 12 years and elect one of their own as speaker.

In a second House special election on 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 state Senate special election earlier this year. Stender beat Democrat Trevor Finn, a Montour County commissioner. The district also includes part of Northumberland County.


Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

Mark Scolforo, The Associated Press

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