Not every Democrat in Pa. legislature is happy with Gov. Wolf’s handling of coronavirus emergency

Protesters hold signs during a May 15, 2020, rally outside the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. About 1,000 people showed up to protest Gov. Wolf's coronavirus shutdown order. (Katie Landis/PA Post)

Protesters hold signs during a May 15, 2020, rally outside the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. About 1,000 people showed up to protest Gov. Wolf's coronavirus shutdown order. (Katie Landis/PA Post)

This article originally appeared on PA Post.

When Bill Kortz was the operations manager at a U.S. Steel plant prior to his election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he said he tried to use common sense and collaboration to resolve problems at the plant. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Allegheny County Democrat said he thought Gov. Tom Wolf was taking the same approach as he ordered broad closures aimed at flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases to avoid overrunning hospitals.

Kortz voted against early attempts by the Republican-led legislature to force the reopening of the Pennsylvania economy. But as April and May dragged on, Kortz began to see things differently. The goalposts for reopening appeared to be shifting, he said. And he heard pleas from mom-and-pop establishments in his district that feared going out of business for good as their competitors were able to reopen and complaints about an unemployment compensation system that he called a “disaster.”

Kortz said his attempts to get answers from the Wolf administration on what was guiding the reopening plan were increasingly fruitless. So, he decided to try to send the Wolf administration a message.

When the legislature moved last week to try to rein in the emergency powers that Wolf has used to help manage the pandemic, Kortz was one of 14 Democrats — 12 in the House, two in the Senate — to join unanimous Republican majorities in support of the effort.

For the most part, Wolf’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been popular, according to public opinion surveys. A recent Change Research/CNBC poll found that only 32 percent of respondents said that the state was not opening quickly enough.

But the votes by Kortz and other Democrats reflect a level of frustration particularly among rank-and-file members from more moderate districts.

“I don’t have confidence in his numbers and some of his people,” said Kortz.

After 13 weeks during which Wolf’s orders kept much of the state’s businesses shuttered, Kortz said it was time to move on; the slow pace of Pennsylvania’s reopening was more than his constituents could bear, he said.

“[Wolf] did the right thing in the beginning, no doubt about it. I was on board 100 percent,” said Kortz. “But as we got to the 13th week, we’re now to June, and the curve was coming down from April 18. Why weren’t we opening up?”

Furthermore, Kortz said that Wolf has shown “disrespect” for the legislature throughout the process. He pointed to several cases where the legislature took action — for example to reopen real estate businesses — only to see the governor rignore the legislations in favor of taking executive action to accomplish the same goal. (The Wolf administration maintains that the real estate bill had a fatal flaw in mandating municipalities to issue occupancy permits without inspections.)

“Why doesn’t he sit down with the leaders of the House and Senate? He doesn’t have to sit with me — I’m just a small ranking member — but he should be sitting down with these leaders to work through this,” said Kortz. “It’s all unilateral. It’s all on him. He’s not listening to anybody else. That’s not what a good leader does.”

Like Kortz, state Rep. Anita Kulik, also a Democrat from Allegheny County, said her constituents were sending a clear message about reopening.

“Quite frankly, my constituents are ready for it, I believe,” she said. “There has to be a point at which we move on.”

Kulik said that the longer the shutdown dragged on, the harder it was for her constituents in western Pennsylvania, where the virus has been less severe, to stomach the closure orders.

“Our constituents are different people. We have done a great job out here in containing the virus,” said Kulik.

Kulik said that she did not face any kind of intense effort by Democratic legislative leaders to encourage her to vote to uphold Wolf’s emergency declaration.

State Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria) — the only Democrat to vote for the resolution three times ( first in committee and twice on the floor) — said that as the son of a small business owner he felt an obligation to “stand up for the little guy.” As he began to hear from constituents whose mom-and-pop businesses were closed and as he saw the governor flout his own reopening plan to join a Black Lives Matter protest, Burns said it became clear to him that double standards were not working to the benefit of his constituents.

Burns said that he sought clarity from the governor on numerous occasions about what metrics were guiding reopening, but he never received a response that satisfied him.

“There’s been a lack of transparency on the governor’s side for sure, and the communication with the legislature has been minimal,” said Burns. “This was about sending a message to the governor … It sends a strong message from the people of Pennsylvania that we need to open businesses and we need to end this shutdown. Because the governor was slow and dragging his feet at opening businesses, it got to the point where we just had to end the declaration altogether.”

In the Senate, only two Democrats broke ranks to vote with the Republicans, and neither agreed to be interviewed by PA Post. A spokesperson for state Sen. James Brewster (D-Allegheny, Westmoreland) noted the progress the state has made in combating the coronavirus.

Geography played a role. All three Democratic state House members from Erie County — Ryan Bizzarro, Patrick Harkins and Robert Merski — voted against a resolution to partially end the disaster declaration on May 28. But on June 9, all three voted in favor of a modified version of the resolution that would fully end the disaster declaration.

All three could not be reached for comment for this story. But they have criticized the Wolf administration’s decision to keep Erie County in the yellow phase of the governor’s reopening plan.

A spokesperson for the governor said Wolf has consulted with legislators on a routine basis throughout the pandemic. In an email, Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said the governor “very much appreciates the continued support of House and Senate Democrats who have stood with him to protect the public during this unprecedented time.”

She did not address the fact that some rank-and-file Democrats’ patience has waned. Wolf has, himself, acknowledged frustration from legislators in both parties.

“I’m getting pressure from all over the place, including from myself,” Wolf said at a May 29 news conference. “…When someone expresses frustration — whether it’s voting a way that I don’t agree with, I don’t care if they’re Democrats or Republicans — I understand it.”

Still, the governor maintains that ending the emergency declaration will have no effect on the phased reopening plan because that plan also rests on the Disease Control and Prevention Act, which provides separate legal authority.

“Republican attempts to cherry pick industries to reopen throughout the last several months are unconstitutional, as emergency orders cannot be lifted in such a fashion. It was and continues to be the governor’s hope that Republicans will work with, and not against, him in efforts to manage this pandemic,” said Kensinger.

Republican leaders disagree.

“It certainly is our belief that [Dr. Rachel Levine] has the ability as the Secretary of Health for closure, isolation and quarantine of the sick, not of the healthy,” said state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) during the Senate’s floor debate. “We certainly would challenge the authority of the Secretary of Health to quarantine the healthy. We do believe that this resolution … will end the trafficking that the governor has had over our daily lives.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear the case, and House and Senate Democratic leaders filed an amicus brief suggesting that the Republicans are not acting as legitimate agents of the legislature in their quest for a court injunction directing Wolf to end the declaration.

Burns, the Cambria County Democrat, said he “absolutely” believes the emergency resolution was about reopening businesses and that he does not put much stock in the Wolf administration’s assertion that the closure orders can rest on separate legal authority.

“That’s just his opinion,” said Burns. “We’ll get the court’s opinion and find out exactly. But if everybody’s offering opinions, mine is that the legislature is the check and balance on the governor, and here we are saying that it’s time to end the declaration. This has gone on too long.”

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