Open 18th District Seat Inspires 2 Main Stands

Posted: September 23, 1990

Robert M. Tomlinson breezed through the Cornwells Heights train station at 7 a.m. Thursday, pumping hands and handing out campaign literature to dozy commuters.

Curiously, the Republican candidate for the state House in the 18th District didn't ask for votes, didn't discuss the issues. When a man angrily asked him what he could do about closing a known drug house in Bensalem Township, Tomlinson was caught off-guard.

"I don't know," he said.

But he quickly recovered, telling the man that he thought it was up to police to close the house. What he could do as a state representative, he said, was fight for increased state funding for schools so they could teach kids to stay off drugs.

The man didn't like the answer and walked away in a huff. But to Tomlinson, 44, education is the key to preventing drug abuse.

"We have to cut off the demand by educating kids at a very low age," he said, as the 7:15 train pulled out of the station.

It is easy to understand why Tomlinson feels so strongly about education. For the last 12 years, he has been a member of the Bensalem school board. In fact, he said the main reason he was running for the legislature was to increase state aid to schools, which in turn would lower property taxes.

"The state is not doing its fair share of the funding," said Tomlinson, who owns a funeral home and is known as "Tommy." "It's supposed to fund 50 percent of the educational system, and now it's down to 39 percent."

Tomlinson's Democratic opponent in the election Nov. 6 is Patricia A. Zajac, 46, a former Bensalem supervisor.

Her campaign, too, is centered mostly on one issue: the environment. As a supervisor, Zajac led a battle against a proposed trash-to-steam plant, bucking three Republicans who tried squeezing the plant through at a midnight meeting.

The two are battling for a district that encompasses Bensalem, three voting districts in Lower Southampton Township and one district in Middletown Township. It is a mixed bag of people and incomes, including factory workers, business owners and professionals.

When 18-year incumbent Republican Edward F. Burns Jr. announced last year that he would not seek re-election after being elected mayor of Bensalem, it became one of only 11 open districts in the state. Another is the 142d in Bucks County, in which longtime Republican State Rep. James L. Wright Jr. is stepping down.

The Democratic and Republican state committees have targeted the two races, saying winning them is crucial to the reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts, which will be based on the 1990 census.

Because of a drop in population, Pennsylvania might lose two seats in Congress, political observers say. Because the General Assembly decides which seats to cut and how to carve up the new districts, both parties want as many votes as possible.

"The Democrats have a plurality in the House," said Ellen Brown, executive director of the Bucks County Democratic Party. "They're in control now, and they want to maintain that control."

Democrats hold the state House by a small margin - 103 to 99. Republicans hold the state Senate, 27 to 23.

In the 18th District, Democratic leaders say they are not discouraged even though Republicans outnumber them, 15,562 to 12,332, and a Republican has held the seat nearly two decades. They point out that the district has helped send Democrats H. Craig Lewis to the state Senate and Peter H. Kostmayer to Congress.

"Voters have demonstrated a willingness to vote for a qualified Democrat," said Tony May, executive director of the Democratic State Committee.

The district has suffered from overdevelopment, traffic and pollution in recent years. To protect the environment, Zajac said she would like to see more recycling and a moratorium against incinerators and landfill expansions. She also supports Senate Bill 1594, which would allocate $150 million for buying public lands and maintaining state parks.

Bensalem's government during her tenure was marked by political infighting, alleged building fraud and a power struggle between Zajac's husband, Theodore R. Zajac Jr., and Richard Viola for the job of police chief.

Theodore Zajac was chief for a short time before losing the post to Viola. At one point, the township was paying three men to be chief while Zajac and Viola duked it out in the courts.

Patricia Zajac said that she was aware of some of the allegations of corruption - a grand jury is investigating two former building officials - but that as the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, there had been much she didn't know and couldn't do.

"When I walked into the township supervisors meetings most of the time, I didn't know what was going on," she said.

Both candidates said they supported abortion rights, but Tomlinson says there should be some restrictions, such as not performing the procedure after the sixth month of pregnancy.

In keeping with the theme of his campaign, Tomlinson said he thought education was the key to saving the environment.

"We have to educate the consumer about what they can put back into the air and into the water," he said.

Traffic is another big campaign issue with Tomlinson. One of the first things he would do as a state representative, he said, would be to work on securing funds to widen Hulmeville Road, a narrow two-lane artery that bisects Bensalem.

Tomlinson - who grew up in Bensalem, is married and has two children - said he had wanted to be a state representative as long as he can remember. His father unsuccessfully ran for the same seat in 1958.

"It's always been there," he said of his desire to run. "Only when Ed Burns retired did it seem a possibility."

Zajac, now a homemaker, said she thought her experience as a supervisor and her willingness to vote with her constituents would make her a good legislator.

"I always listened to the people," said Zajac, who moved to Bensalem from Savannah, Ga., when she was 11.

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