Democrats dominate major mayors’ races in Pennsylvania

Democrats secured the mayor’s offices in several Pennsylvania cities, although the Republican nominee did win one of the state's most hotly contested races.

York City Council President Michael Helfrich, a Republican, embraces a supporter after winning the mayor's race. (Emily Previti/WITF)

York City Council President Michael Helfrich, a Republican, embraces a supporter after winning the mayor's race. (Emily Previti/WITF)

Democrats dominated municipal elections in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, securing the mayor’s offices in Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton, Lancaster, Erie, State College and Harrisburg.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski won a fourth term despite being the target of a federal indictment accusing him of pay-to-play politics. Under Pawlowski’s oversight, the state’s 3rd largest city has undergone a significant revitalization, with major downtown development.

A Republican nominee, however, did win one of the state’s most hotly contested mayoral elections. In York, incumbent Mayor Kim Bracey, a Democrat, conceded to City Council President Michael Helfrich nearly two hours after polls closed on Tuesday night.

Helfrich lost to Bracey in the primary running as a Democrat, but won the Republican nomination as a write-in candidate to get the GOP general ballot slot.

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Incumbent unseated

The gathering for Helfrich at the Holy Hound — a 30-tap brewpub facing the York County Courthouse — was high-spirited throughout the evening, with campaign workers shushing raucous supporters during television interviews.

Meanwhile, Bracey’s supporters were comparatively quiet as they trickled into Coomb’s Restaurant a mile away.

So quiet that, from one table over, the campaign’s concerns became clear rather quickly, when the first results came in showing Helfrich won a district where he lost to Bracey in May.

The discussion then turned to absentee ballots. No one knew how many had been cast in the race, in either camp. Turned out, it was only 28 – not enough to make a difference in the final unofficial tally of 2,003 to 2,128.

Nonetheless, Bracey was smiling widely as she addressed supporters after conceding to Helfrich by phone.

“We can pop champagne anyway,” said Bracey, who was just named the president of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. “The city of York has been changed in all sorts of ways, and it’s because of all the people around me.”

Bracey had garnered endorsements from high-profile Democrats such as Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf, a longtime York County resident.

But Bracey also has been dealing with the fallout over her 31-year-old son, who works for the city, getting arrested for assaulting her outside campaign headquarters in September amid his reported battle with opioid addiction.

Bracey was the city’s first black mayor and second female to hold the office. If she had secured and completed a third term, she would have been tied for the city’s longest-serving mayor.

Helfrich started his victory speech thanking Bracey and his campaign workers.

“I didn’t do this to be mayor of the government, I did it to be the leader of our community,” he said. “I’ve said a lot throughout the campaign about children, families and taxpayers of the city. And now it’s time for me to deliver.”

Later, he addressed priorities.

Helfrich says when it comes to doing things differently, his initial focus will include the redistribution of Community Development Block Grants.

“It’s like buying a new dress when you can’t put food on the table,” he said of the way CDBG money’s spent currently.

Right now, he says, the funding mainly goes toward minor streetscape improvements. He  wants to use it to bolster programs for children offered by city nonprofits and religious groups instead.

The York mayor’s race was not one of the eight in the county that was affected by a voter machine disaster that potentially let people vote twice for candidates who had cross-filed in contested races.


Expected results, with one twist

In Harrisburg, incumbent Eric Papenfuse won an uncontested race. But Election Day in the capital city was not without its surprises. A judge had to send out law enforcement to seize raffle tickets that seemingly were meant to drive turnout for a write-in challenger.

Incumbent Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright won a second term, as did Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto – both expected results.

In State College, longtime former borough council member Donald Hahn repeated his primary victory on Tuesday.

And Lancaster City Councilwoman Danene Sorace easily won the race to succeed outgoing Mayor Rick Gray.

And former Erie City Councilman Joe Schember made his “political comeback” to best local attorney John Persinger, a Republican who loyalists had believed had a fighting chance to flip historically deep-blue Erie.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Michael Helfrich is still a registered Democrat.


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