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7:00 am
Mon August 6, 2012

Special Election Tuesday to Fill Orie's Senate Seat

Three candidates are competing in a special election Tuesday to serve out the last two years of the term of former state Senator Jane Orie of McCandless Township.

The nearly quarter million residents of District 40 have been without a Senator since Orie resigned May 18, nine weeks after her conviction on public corruption charges for using state paid staffers to work on her political campaigns.

"In terms of backlash, are they angry? Yes, some are very angry," said Sharon Brown, a retired nurse and health care educator, who was nominated by the Democratic committees of Allegheny and Butler Counties.

The Republican committees selected three-term state Representative Randy Vulakovich of Shaler Township. Don Bindas, an auto dealer from Franklin Park, is running as an independent. Bindas calls himself the "alternative conservative," but says he doesn't toe the Republican Party line.

"We're in a Republican stronghold as far as a constituent base," Bindas said. "They're just so upset with Republicans, but they're not quite upset enough to vote Democrat, but they do want to protest."

Republican Representative Vulakovich is not worried about a backlash.

"Not at all. It's Randy Vulakovich running and not anyone else as the Republican candidate," Vulakovich said.

When voters in the 40th district go to the polls tomorrow, they won't be asked for a photo ID unless they're casting a ballot at that precinct for the first time. Pennsylvania's Voter ID law will take effect for the November general election unless a Commonwealth Court judge grants a request to block it while its constitutionality is considered.

Vulakovich co-sponsored the voter ID legislation and still supports it despite the court challenge.

"I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with going up and showing a photo ID and saying, 'This is me and I want to exercise my right to vote,'" Vulakovich said. "Almost anything you do today, you've got to show a photo ID. To go sign up for benefits, you need some type of ID, and if they can get there to get those things they need, they can get to a photo ID center."

"It was a way to take care of voter fraud when we had in fact essentially no voter fraud," said Sharon Brown, "so it was a remedy for a non-situation. I think it definitely should be struck down."

Independent candidate Don Bindas said he can argue the issue of voter ID either way.

"[But] why was there such a strong push to jam something through when it could have been incrementally brought up to speed, other than it was just pure party politics where Mr. Turzai [House GOP leader] was toeing the party line and pushing it through to give Mitt Romney an edge that he could to take the state of Pennsylvania?" Bindas said.

Another piece of legislation that has ended up in the courts is Act 13, the Marcellus Shale drilling law. Commonwealth Court has struck down provisions that blocked municipalities from adopting zoning ordinances to limit drilling.

Don Bindas believes the drilling is important to Pennsylvania's energy future but "absolutely" municipalities should have a say where the drilling takes place.

"The idea of the state coming in and saying where we'll drill, how we'll drill and if we want to run a pipeline through somebody's park or whatever, that's ridiculous, that's nuts," Bindas said.

Randy Vulakovich says you can't have everyone with a lot of different rules. Still, he has no problem with Commonwealth Court's action.

"Even if the court didn't step in and we'd find out there were some problems with the local option thing where people would come to us and say, 'Hey, this isn't working out,' well we'll look at it and change it if we have to," Vulakovich said.

Democrat Sharon Brown takes issue with inconsistencies in local ordinances but does not favor a statewide approach.

"Where if it [drilling] must go on would it be most logical? I think townships know their boundaries, know their communities far better than a state agency," Brown said.

About two thirds of the 40th Senate district is in northern Allegheny County, the remainder in Butler County. Allegheny County is under a court order to implement a reassessment of all properties, Butler County is not. The next Senator might be pressured both ways: no reassessment in Butler County, and is it fair that Allegheny County must do so? Shouldn't there be a statewide system?

Independent Don Bindas does not support a statewide approach to assessment. "It's so subjective. They're not as objective as they ought to be. I don't know how you can do it. If you're going to amplify it into a state level, you're just going to magnify the craziness," Bindas said.

Democrat Sharon Brown prefers a statewide approach.

"We obviously in Allegheny County have been hit extraordinarily hard with property assessment rates skyrocketing when other counties haven't had to go there in a number of years, some as far back as the 80's. It's obvious it's not equitable across the state," Brown said.

Republican Randy Vulakovich suggests there should be state guidelines that all counties must follow.

"Allegheny County is famous for its problems. 40 years we've been dealing with issues and complaints from people. You would think during 40 years we would have made some adjustments to make it a little better," Vulakovich said.

The winner of the special election will serve out the last 2 years of Jane Orie's term, but then, under the latest redistricting plan, the 40th would be shifted to the northeast part of the state. That means if they want to remain in office, Vulakovich or Brown or Bindas would have to run against incumbent Jim Ferlo in a redrawn 38th district.

According to Mark Wolosik, the director of the Allegheny County Elections Division, since 1980 there have been eight special elections to fill state House and Senate vacancies in the county. The lowest turnout was June 17, 2003 when 13.4% of registered voters cast ballots in the 44th legislative district. Republican Mark Mustio won that contest.

The highest turnout for a stand-alone election was 29.5% in March 2001, coincidentally in the 40th Senatorial district when Jane Orie was elected.