Election bill puts Pileggi in spotlight

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi is known for being low-key.
State Sen. Dominic Pileggi is known for being low-key.

His plan would change the way Pa. allocates electoral votes. It has put the GOP leader into a wide debate.

Posted: September 25, 2011

HARRISBURG - Dominic Pileggi doesn't seek the limelight. The Delaware County Republican chooses his words carefully and leads the state Senate's majority caucus with a steady hand and an unflappable demeanor.

His name is most likely to turn up on a bill revising the library code or tweaking an obscure clause in Senate rules. Flamethrower he is not.

Which made it all the more surprising to some that he has thrust himself into the center of a national debate over how America picks its presidents.

Pileggi, 53, set off a war of words earlier this month when he announced a proposal to change the way Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes.

His bill would replace the winner-take-all apportioning of those votes by awarding most of them to the popular-vote winner in each congressional district.

Gov. Corbett and state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) were quick to express support for the idea; Corbett said it would be fairer to voters outside the big cities. But just as quickly, Republicans in the state's congressional delegation warned that Democrats would shift campaign resources away from those cities and into the suburbs - making it harder for GOP incumbents in those "swing" congressional districts. They even summoned Corbett to Washington to defend the proposal.

Democrats called it "vote rigging" and said it would deprive Pennsylvania of pivotal importance in national elections.

And Pileggi? He says he was surprised by all the national fuss.

"There are concerns on both sides of the aisle," he said dryly in a Wednesday interview at his Capitol office. He said his bill addressed a long-standing concern: "We have a very diverse state and there's a general feeling that [in the electoral college] the diversity is not being represented."

Pileggi also brushed off suggestions that the bill was timed to help the GOP presidential ticket in 2012. On the contrary, he said, he wants the proposal aired well before that vote to foster what he called a "healthy exchange of ideas."

Healthy or no, the exchange promises to feature a full-blown lobbying campaign in Harrisburg. With a deep-pocketed, newly formed group called All Votes Matter behind it, the Pileggi legislation has vaulted to the front of the General Assembly's fall agenda.

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), chairman of the state government committee, has scheduled a hearing on the bill for Oct. 4.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant and spokesman for the bipartisan group, said it had already spent $180,000 on lobbying and was prepared to spend as much as $300,000 in all to get the bill to the governor's desk.

All Votes Matter disclosed $77,716 in spending on lobbying for the second quarter, state records show. It also hired Long, Nyquist & Associates, a public-relations firm headed by former GOP state Senate aides Mike Long and Todd Nyquist.

Gerow said he discussed the idea in the spring with a Democrat - William Sloane of Carlisle, a lawyer who was counsel for the party's state House caucus.

Sloane wanted to form All Votes Matter, and Gerow helped set it up, recruit board members, and raise money for the cause. Gerow said he took the proposal to Corbett around the same time he was helping Sloane launch the idea and secured the governor's support.

As for why the low-key Pileggi decided to sponsor the bill, Gerow said, "great question. I don't know," adding: "I'm not part of the Senate team."

Gerow would not say who has donated to the group: "The donors are not public information and not required to be under the laws of the commonwealth. The donors prefer not to have our friends in the fourth estate contacting them every day."

Meanwhile, another well-funded group that promotes the direct election of the president by popular vote is waging a counterattack. The National Popular Vote group has been pushing its plan in Harrisburg and other state capitals for a half-dozen years. So far, eight state legislatures have endorsed the plan, including those in California, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Pileggi said he had weighed the congressional-district electoral voting idea since the last presidential election cycle, when Gov. Ed Rendell was pushing a plan to move up Pennsylvania's presidential primary date.

He said he became aware of the All Votes Matter group only recently.

"There no attempt to fast-track" his bill, he said. "It's not at the same level of importance of other things like the shale issue."

Pileggi first won a seat in the Senate in 2002. He had been serving as Chester mayor when the death of Sen. Clarence Bell opened the Ninth District seat. Pileggi won it in a special election.

Reflecting on his relatively brief senatorial career - he ascended to majority leader when Sen. David "Chip" Brightbill (R., Lebanon) was ousted after the legislature's 2005 pay-raise scandal - Pileggi counts his proudest achievements as making state government more open to scrutiny through improved reporting of contracts, campaign expenses, and other public records.

He first served in elected office as a Chester city councilman and sat on the Chester-Upland school board. He has a degree in economics from St. Joseph's University and a Villanova University law degree.

Andy Reilly, the Delaware County Republican Party chairman who has known Pileggi since the lawmaker was Chester mayor, said he didn't believe partisan motives were behind Pileggi's decision to introduce the Electoral College bill.

"I don't believe it was for political reasons," said Reilly, who credits Pileggi for his leading role in helping revitalize Chester by securing funding for the Chester Downs racetrack and casino and building the new professional soccer stadium. "He's not cut that way."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

 

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