The state house’s 87th District has 42,000 registered voters. It’s home to some of Cumberland County’s most populous townships (Hampden, East Pennsboro, Silver Spring) and Camp Hill borough. But its voice in Harrisburg is silent, and its seat is empty.
Glen Grell left three months into the current term for a $215,000 a year position at the head of the Public School Employees Retirement System.
A special election will fill his seat August 4.
But the two candidates who will be placed on the ballot will not be decided by those tens of thousands of voters but rather by 55 Republican and about 55 Democratic Committee people.
“It’s not the best system,” said Greg Rothman, Chairman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee. “It’s hard for me to defend because you’re taking away some choice voters have.”
Rothman heads the committee that will ultimately pick the Republican candidate and admits that he is considering a run for the seat himself.
Nate Silcox is absolutely running. He was Vice Chairman of the committee but resigned to seek the position. Both guys know, and helped recruit, many of the members on the committee who will now select the party’s nominee.
There are two additional GOP announced candidates, Dave Buell and Tammy Shearer, who are elected officials in Cumberland County.
To non-connected observers it sure feels like an inside job.
“There’s always gonna be some criticism in terms of whatever the process is used,” Silcox said. “I can’t help that. I have to deal with whatever the circumstances are.”
The circumstances are that the party’s hand-picked person then becomes an incumbent, which means they’ve got the inside track to a long stint in the state house without ever facing an open primary challenge.
“The reality is incumbents get re-elected and Republicans win in Cumberland County which as chairman of the party I hope continues,” Rothman said.
Representative Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland) has a district adjacent to the 87th. He plans to introduce legislation this session that would require a primary election before a special election.
“I’m not talking about motive or intent here, I just want to make sure we have the voters getting the opportunity to pick the nominees and not insider politicians,” Bloom said.
Rothman worries that qualified people might look at the process and figure since they don’t have longstanding relationships with committee members, they have no shot. He thinks those fears are founded.
“If it is an inside deal then there might be a good candidate out there that doesn’t have a chance,” Rothman said.
Silcox likely has the best chance and has to be considered the favorite. He’s a Hampden Township Commissioner and he’s been lining up committee support for more than a year. He was planning to run for the Grell seat in 2016 because he expected Grell to run for the senate seat held by Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland). Vance is expected to announce her retirement later this year.
Grell’s surprising departure speeded up Silcox’s clock but he’s the most prepared. He said he understands the criticism about the process but says don’t blame him for thinking ahead and working hard toward his goal.
“The law, is the law, is the law,” Silcox said. “And until the law is changed that’s how the process is to be played out.”
Republicans will choose their candidate on June 6.
Democrats haven’t set a date yet but Chairman Ken Lee says there are several qualified candidates expressing interest.