Roughly two weeks before Pennsylvanians will go to the polls in the 2023 primary, Governor Josh Shapiro has inserted himself in the special election for House District 163 in Upper Darby, claiming in a television ad that if voters fail to elect the Democrat candidate, Republicans will make abortion illegal across the commonwealth.
“Delaware County, I need your help in the special election for state representative. The winner will determine which party controls the legislature. If Republican extremists win, they’ll take away my veto power by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.”
Shapiro then concludes by asking Delaware County voters in the district to vote for the Democratic nominee, Heather Boyd. The Republican nominee is Katie Ford.
A top Republican campaign strategist said the ad was dishonest.
“Josh Shapiro jumped on the bandwagon for politician Heather Boyd and revealed political power is more important than honesty,” said Bob Bozzuto, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee. “By doubling down on the lies about Katie Ford, Gov. Shapiro adds his name as a co-conspirator in the sexual harassment cover up that led to this Special Election,” he said, referring to the recent resignation of Mike Zabel, a Democrat.
Broad + Liberty asked the governor’s office to defend the statement that Republicans will “take away” his “veto power.” That request for comment was not returned.
It is true the Pennsylvania Constitution does not give the governor any power to veto legislation that would create proposed constitutional amendments, which are voted on by the people. Whether this equates to Republicans “taking away” that power is a matter of semantics. Nevertheless, the constitution does make the process more difficult, given that amendments to the constitution are more legally powerful than simple changes to state statute. For example, the legislation would have to pass both the Pennsylvania Senate and House in consecutive years, would have to survive legal challenges, and then win a majority of votes from the full commonwealth.
Additionally, for Shaprio’s claim to be true, he assumes that all 101 House Republicans would vote for the measure, and that there would be no breakaway votes from the party line — and that they could pull off that feat in consecutive years. Given that House Republicans had a difficult time electing a speaker at the beginning of the 2023 session when they still possessed a majority because of a technicality, maintaining pure party discipline across all 101 members would seem difficult.
The ad further illustrates that Democrats, in the commonwealth and nationwide, have come to see abortion as a winning wedge issue in the wake of the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned nearly 50 years under the ruling Roe v. Wade.
It also highlights the stakes of the special election, given that House Democrats took the majority for the first time in years after the 2022 elections, but did so with a slim one-seat margin that later would become up for grabs when Zabel was forced to resign under a cloud of sexual assault allegations.
Spotlight PA reporter Stephen Caruso earlier this week tweeted that Democrats are trying to rally the troops.
“According to two Democratic sources, House Democrats had a caucus-wide call this weekend asking members to put money into the election, citing concerns about the race,” he tweeted.
“It’s hard to tell what’s justified concern and what’s just irrational panic from Democrats [right now], or as some have described it, a fear of never having nice things,” he added.
Shapiro’s claim in the ad about abortion, however, is heavily disputed.
In the summer of 2022, the Republican-controlled senate did pass a bill that would create a ballot question asking voters to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, but partisans are passionately divided over how far it would go.
The key paragraph of that legislation proposing the ballot question says, “The policy of Pennsylvania is to protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth, to the extent permitted by the Federal Constitution. Nothing in this Constitution grants or secures any right relating to abortion or the public funding thereof. Nothing in this Constitution requires taxpayer funding of abortion.”
Republican lawmakers have said not conferring a right is vastly different from outlawing the procedure altogether.
“[Abortion is] legal, but it’s not a right,” Ward said. “The amendment just puts (into the state constitution) that it isn’t a right and that taxpayers aren’t mandated to foot the bill for an abortion.”
Democrats, however, have held to a message similar to Shaprio’s that abortion access would be “outlawed.”
Zabel’s resignation from the seat created its own political whirlwind, especially around the partisan control of the lower chamber, as well as the special election in the Delco.
When the House was deadlocked in January and then-Speaker Mike Rozzi went on a statewide “listening tour,” a lobbyist for the SEIU, Andi Perez, gave public testimony that she had been sexually assaulted in 2019 by a still-sitting member of the House.
In mid-February, Broad + Liberty reported that the identity of the person alleged to have inappropriately touched Perez was widely known in Harrisburg, but the report did not name the individual at that time. The report included a quote from a former Republican member of the House who alleged Democrats were not pursuing disciplining that member because it might flip the balance of power.
About a week later, Broad + Liberty was first to identify Zabel as the member who allegedly assaulted Perez.
The report that named Zabel was possible because of new allegations made by an anonymous member of the House. Rep. Abby Major (R-Armstrong) later revealed herself as that accuser. Zabel resigned soon after Major publicly put her name behind the allegations.
Further reporting by other outlets showed Democrats knew about allegations against Zabel at least as far back as 2019.
Major can be seen in a television ad about the special election in which she claims Heather Boyd knew there were accusations of improper conduct swirling around Zabel in previous years, but that she was complicit as part of the county’s Democratic party machinery in sending Zabel back to the House regardless of that knowledge.
“Year after year, Heather Boyd sent the man who harassed me to Harrisburg by covering up his deplorable actions,” Major says in the ad.
Although the makeup of the district has voted Democratic in most top-of-the-ticket races like governor and president in recent years, there have also been notable Republican wins at the municipal level, making the race all the more interesting.
In the 2022 elections, House Republicans won the statewide vote by more than 300,000 votes but lost control of the chamber because of the way district lines were drawn. The 163rd district last elected a Republican in 2016.
The ad featuring Shapiro was paid for by the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, and was approved by Heather Boyd. The ad featuring Rep. Major was paid for by Friends of Katie Ford.
The primary is May 16.
Editor’s note: The original headline of this article has been changed.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports