State Sen. John Blake’s surprise resignation almost two months ago means a primary election that isn’t only for Democrats and Republicans.
All 22nd Senate District registered voters, regardless of party registration, can vote for Blake’s replacement in a special election happening the same day as the May 18 primary.
In primary elections, Democrats and Republicans vote for nominees to face off in November when voters actually choose elected officials.
In the Senate special election, the winner will take office as soon as results are certified and serve until the end of Blake’s term Nov. 30, 2022, unless reelected next year.
The district includes all of Lackawanna County; Avoca, Dupont and Duryea boroughs and Pittston Twp. in Luzerne County; and Barrett, Coolbaugh and Price townships in Monroe County. The salary this year is $90,335.42.
After more than a decade as a senator, Blake resigned March 8 to direct U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright’s district office, a departure that set the stage for a furious campaign — at least between the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Democrats nominated state Rep. Marty Flynn, the 113th state House District representative since 2012. Republicans nominated Lackawanna County Commissioner Chris Chermak, who took office in January 2020. Nathan Covington is the Libertarian Party nominee, and Marlene Sebastianelli, is the Green Party nominee.
Competing television commercials attacking Flynn and Chermak have produced the race’s most public element. One Flynn commercial blasted Chermak for backing an 11.3% county property tax hike shortly after taking office. Chermak said the county’s weakening financial condition left him no choice.
The ads attacking Flynn have come courtesy of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which accuses Flynn of having too cozy a relationship with Gov. Tom Wolf and supporting Wolf’s proposed tax hikes. Flynn says he has opposed Wolf, most notably advocating to let parents view their children’s sports games amid state-mandated COVID-19 gathering restrictions.
The committee recruited Chermak to run with promises of strong financing.
The two major parties have a lot at stake. The Senate has 27 Republicans, 20 Democrats, one independent and two vacancies. A Chermak win in a traditionally Democratic region would bolster the Republican Senate majority, but could also further signal Democratic decline locally.
Democrats desperately want to keep a seat they have held since 1970. Republicans want to win it for the first time since former Scranton Treasurer Arthur Piasecki’s victory in 1966.
Flynn, chairman of the northeast delegation of House Democrats and a member of the appropriations and other committees, cites his Harrisburg experience.
“Being one of 50 is a lot harder than being one of 203,” he said. “Your views are more magnified, and I was excited to have the opportunity. … I think I can do the job.”
Two Scranton Republicans tried to get Flynn off the ballot by claiming his campaign manager filed his financial interest statement when the candidate should have. A Commonwealth Court judge saw Flynn as sloppy in filling out past financial interest statements, but allowed him to remain on the ballot.
“Maybe it was done sloppily, hastily,” Flynn said. “I should have worked harder at it and taken a longer time.”
Chermak praises Blake for “reaching across the aisle” and regularly offering help. As a minority commissioner to two Democrats, he said he is limited in getting things done. As a senator, he would join a Republican majority, enabling him to help the region more, he said.
“Fix the roads, help the schools, help with grants, help get the restaurants back on track,” he said. “My life is not going to get easier. … Now I have to drive to Harrisburg. It’s gonna be a lot more work and a lot more responsibility, but I can’t wait to do that.”
Covington, a webpage designer and owner of construction and cleaning services companies, said he’s running as “a concerned citizen more than anything” and “a regular guy.” Also a Barrett Twp. auditor, he does that job for free, a sign of his willingness to help the public, he said.
“I’m just about as far away as you can get from Harrisburg on the political scale,” he said. “To be honest, if I was elected, I probably wouldn’t have much of an agenda to start out with. I’m probably going to go into Harrisburg and just sit there and listen and do research and ask questions and kind of be pretty low-key to start out.”
Sebastianelli, a health care executive and winery owner, cites decades of experience in administering and working in other jobs in nursing homes, which she said gives her an understanding of financial matters and healthcare crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I felt I brought a lot more to the table given the pandemic,” she said.
Here are their views on major issues facing Pennsylvania:
COVID-19CHERMAK: Believes it’s time to lift state occupancy and masking restrictions and leave that up to customers and business owners, but wants to continue encouraging people to get vaccinated.
“Until everybody’s vaccinated and the thing is a distant memory, we need wash our hands … wear a mask,” he said.
COVINGTON: Believes restrictions worked, but it’s time to lift all state restrictions.
FLYNN: Advocates pushing vaccinations “to help us get to herd immunity,” increasing vaccine accessibility and perhaps offering incentives to get vaccinated.
He said he’ll let the Wolf administration and scientists determine the right time to remove masking and occupancy restrictions.
SEBASTIANELLI: Wants to ensure the state collects accurate data on outbreaks and ensures nursing homes and other health care centers have all the needed masks, gloves, gowns, sanitizer, equipment and disinfecting agents for possible future outbreaks. She opposes lifting masking, occupancy and other restrictions until more people are vaccinated.
TaxesCHERMAK: Opposes a natural gas extraction tax, also known as a severance tax, seeing that as a penalty on an industry “paramount to this region” and already paying enough in fees and other taxes. The tax would hurt consumers when companies factor the tax into prices, he said.
COVINGTON: Generally favors reducing taxes, but is unsure about a severance tax because he hasn’t studied the issue.
“It seems to me like if there should have been a severance tax, they should have planned for that from the beginning,” he said.
He said he would explore increasing the 6% sales tax to replace the school property tax.
FLYNN: Favors imposing a severance tax, legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana and closing the loophole that allows companies to shift Pennsylvania profits to states with lower income taxes. He opposes a bill to increase sales and income taxes to reduce school property taxes, saying that would hurt lower-income taxpayers more. He favors using new tax revenues to eliminate property taxes only on a person’s home, not on rental properties or businesses.
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors imposing a severance tax and perhaps a higher impact fee on imported garbage to help fund schools and reduce property taxes.
Education funding CHERMAK: Favors looking thoroughly at school district funding, but isn’t sure about changes. Perhaps a higher sales tax or a consumption tax makes sense, he said. He favors some charter school reform because of the money school districts lose.
“We’re gonna have to work on that and find something,” he said.
COVINGTON: Favors exploring increasing the sales tax to replace the school property tax.
FLYNN: Favors Wolf’s plan for a fairer state basic education funding formula, partly because the current formula badly hurts the Scranton School District. He favors raising more money for schools through a severance tax, legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana use and closing the loophole that allows companies to shift Pennsylvania profits to states with lower income taxes.
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors imposing a natural gas extraction tax and perhaps a higher impact fee for imported garbage to help fund schools.
Minimum wage CHERMAK: Views an increase in the $7.25 an hour minimum wage as unnecessary because most employers already match the $15 an hour that Gov. Tom Wolf proposes.
“I don’t think that’s an issue any more,” he said.
COVINGTON: Favors increasing the minimum wage, but not to $15 an hour, which he says is not affordable for small companies and potentially inflationary.
FLYNN: Would favor increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour automatically, but also supports the gradual increase Wolf proposes.
“All the neighboring states have $10, $12 an hour minimum wages,” he said. “I don’t care what job you do., if you clean toilets, if you do it eight hours a day you cannot make even the meagerest living off that kind of wage ($7.25 an hour).”
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. If McDonald’s workers earn $15 an hour, the health care sector may have trouble finding employees. She suggested possible government subsidies to help businesses with employees who work in the “highly stressful jobs of taking care of people.”
Marijuana legalization CHERMAK: Favors legal medical marijuana, but isn’t sure about recreational use because he fears it’s could lead to using harder drugs. He understands taxing recreational marijuana could produce more revenues.
“Does that make it OK? Is it OK to legalize crack cocaine because we can make a lot of money … with taxes?” Chermak said. “I don’t know.”
COVINGTON: Favors legalizing recreational marijuana use and says it never should have been illegal. Diagnosed with Lyme disease four years ago, he said he uses medical marijuana to treat symptoms.
“I mean there’s a lot of social injustice that comes about from marijuana being illegal,” he said.
FLYNN: Favors legalizing recreational marijuana use and taxing sales and thinks outlawing marijuana leads to unnecessary jail overcrowding that costs the state millions of dollars.
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors legalizing recreational use. A cancer survivor, she said she sees recreational use as a better alternative than opioids, which many cancer patients can get.
Gun control CHERMAK: Supports gun rights and opposes further regulation of guns because Pennsylvania’s current gun laws are adequate.
COVINGTON: Generally supports gun rights, but can understand needing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. He said he can’t be sure if he would support further restrictions without seeing a bill.
FLYNN: Generally supports gun rights, but favors universal background checks
SEBASTIANELLI: Generally supports gun rights, but favors universal background checks, more education on gun use and offering free trigger locks to prevent accidental shootings in homes.
Keystone Landfill expansion CHERMAK: Doesn’t necessarily oppose the expansion, but wants environmental regulators to ensure protection of the surrounding environment. He could not say definitively if he would oppose or support the landfill as a senator.
COVINGTON: Said he could not comment because he’s unfamiliar with the expansion plans.
FLYNN: Continues to decline to comment on whether he favors or opposes the expansion, saying that’s up to state environmental regulators and he will only comment after they decide whether to grant the expansion. He opposes giving anyone “a 40-year permit on anything.”
SEBASTIANELLI: Opposes the expansion. She said she believes the state should do a better job of environmental background testing to develop and understand current circumstances before allowing environmentally sensitive projects.
Abortion CHERMAK: Opposes abortion, but favors allowing exceptions for rape, incest and saving the mother’s life.
COVINGTON: Favors a woman’s right to choose an abortion and said the government should not be involved.
FLYNN: Is personally anti-abortion, but will not vote to outlaw abortion because that would only lead to unsafe abortions and amounts to legislating what a woman can do with her body.
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors abortion rights.
“I think there’s so many different things that play into that, that women should be able to make the decision,” she said.
CHERMAK: Did not offer a specific solution when asked about the state’s $60 billion public school and state employee pension deficit, but said he would work to find a way ensure pensions are properly funded.
COVINGTON: Unsure how he would tackle that, but suggested building a hydroelectric dam on a river to produce sellable electricity to raise money for many different purposes.
FLYNN: Favors the state borrowing to fund the deficit, especially with interest rates so low.
SEBASTIANELLI: Favors using money from the severance tax and the impact fee on out-of-state trash imports to help cover the deficit. She opposes borrowing money to fund the deficit.