A plumber and a funeral director face off in a bellwether special election

Voters in District 18 of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, will choose between Republican K.C. Tomlinson (left) and Democrat Harold Hayes in a special election Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Photos from candidates' Facebook pages)

Voters in District 18 of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, will choose between Republican K.C. Tomlinson (left) and Democrat Harold Hayes in a special election Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Photos from candidates' Facebook pages)

Harold Hayes says that in the last few months he’s walked so many miles knocking on doors,  he’s lost over twenty pounds.

Hayes, who usually goes by Howie, is running in a special election for an open State House seat in the 18th District, in Bucks County.

On Tuesday, voters there will decide who they want representing them in Harrisburg: Harold Hayes, a union plumber and Democrat, or Republican K.C. Tomlinson, a local funeral director. Their pick won’t just affect the district. It could help determine control of the House — and be a key indicator of which way Pennsylvania will swing in November.

Hayes is 40, married with two kids, and has lived in Bensalem — the only municipality in the 18th District — for five years.

When he’s door-knocking, he often wears a polo shirt with the logo for his longtime union, Plumbers Local 690.

Sometimes, it leads to interesting interactions, like one with a woman who, upon opening her door, asked if he could take a look at her garbage disposal.

Favors for potential constituents aside, Hayes’s union ties are important in the 18th District, and they’re a key reason why county and state Democrats tapped him for the special election.

Asked what his top issues are, Hayes said workers’ rights, a higher minimum wage, education funding, and access to health care all rank near the top.

“I think I’ll be able to work both sides of the aisle to accomplish whatever we need to accomplish,” he said.

That’s a sensibility his opponent, Tomlinson, shares. In fact, her list of priorities isn’t all that different from Hayes’s.

“Obviously, education is a huge thing — we’ve got to make sure we keep the funding up,” Tomlinson said. “Always keeping the line on taxes is a big concern, especially for our seniors. And the opioid crisis. As a funeral director, I see the effect it has on the families here.”

That’s what makes this election such a toss-up: The 18th is a truly moderate district.

True, a Republican has held the seat since 1995. But that Republican was State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, who left the seat mid-session to become a Bucks County commissioner.

DiGirolamo voted against his party perhaps more than any Republican — and he readily admits he was sometimes a thorn in GOP leaders’ sides.

“I’ve always thought that the most important thing you can do is you’ve got to represent your district,” he said, “And my old district is not like a lot of the other districts that Republicans represent around the state.”

DiGirolamo quickly endorsed Tomlinson when she announced her candidacy. Unlike Hayes, her name was already well known in Bensalem.

Her dad is State Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, and the funeral home where she works as a director has been in her family for three generations.

“I think that we’ve been very spoiled here in Bensalem,” she said. “We’ve had people represent us that we know, lifelong residents here. We trust them, they’re reachable, and I kind of just wanted to do the same thing.”

Ben Forstate, a political analyst who’s keeping an eye on the 18th District election, said it would make logical sense for a Democrat to win.

Southeast Pennsylvania is trending blue. Democrats have more registered voters, and tend to win top-of-the-ticket races. Forstate estimated that Gov.Tom Wolf got more than 60% of the 18th District vote two years ago.

But, he said, down-ballot Democrats in Bucks County have lost several key races in the last few years — often to well-established Republicans with strong name recognition.

“I’m not entirely sure why, so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens this year,” he said. “I think this race is going to be a bellwether in that regard.”

Ultimately, Forstate thinks, the race will come down to polarization.

The question is, will the increasingly blue Bensalem voters decide they’re all in for Democrats? Or can a familiar name and local ties still sway them?

The answer could decide who wins the State House in November. Democrats need nine seats to flip the chamber.

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