Race to watch: Pa. state Rep. Todd Stephens faces off against challenger Melissa Cerrato

A man in the photo on the left smiles; a woman in the photo on the right smiles.

Rep. Todd Stephens (left) is facing off against Melissa Cerrato (right) in the 2022 election race for Pa.'s 151st state district. (Photo of Stephens, courtesy of GK Visual; photo of Melissa Cerrato, courtesy of Melissa Cerrato's campaign)

Pennsylvania state Rep. Todd Stephens has made a name for himself as the quintessential moderate Republican. Sitting in the 151st District, which covers part of Montgomery County and has more registered Democrats than Republicans, he’s seen by some of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature as the last of his kind.

In July, Stephens helped get a piece of Democratic legislation across the finish line when he introduced a bill removing anti-LGBTQ language from the Pensylvania Crimes Code. It was similar to an amendment Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel had proposed a year earlier.

“I try to solve problems. I’m not an ideologue. I don’t think that either party has a monopoly on good ideas, I think that it’s important that we listen to one another and try to understand alternative perspectives,” Stephens said.

He has embraced his reputation. Citing endorsements from CeaseFirePA, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and Moms Demand Action, his campaign website says that he is “no ordinary Republican.”

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However, Stephens faces a challenger this year who wonders whether his positions fall in line with the district.

Democratic candidate Melissa Cerrato has publicly questioned Stephens’ record on abortion constantly along the campaign trail, and Stephens has threatened to sue if she doesn’t stop.

Stephens said that one press release in particular created an issue. According to Stephens, it read:

“After his June 2021 vote in favor of HB1095 — the Fetal Homicide Bill calling for *mandatory life imprisonment* for abortion care providers and their patients in PA — Todd’s stance on choice has become all too clear.”

He responded in August by issuing a cease-and-desist letter.

Stephens said that the letter from his lawyer was warranted because she was not being truthful about House Bill 1095. He said that the court case that prompted the bill involved a defendant murdering his pregnant girlfriend. The court did not hand down a mandatory life sentence because the state Legislature didn’t expressly provide for it in the case of third degree murder.

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HB 1095 by WHYY News on Scribd

He added that Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code maintains there is no liability for acts committed during any abortion or attempted abortion, and the pregnant woman in regards to crimes against a fetus.

Citing his recent presence during a summer press conference on reproductive health with Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Stephens said that he is a supporter of abortion rights.

“I’m pro-choice. I’ve voted to defend a woman’s right to choose every time it’s come up for a vote — and as recently as this past July, when it came up, and so my voting record is clear,” Stephens said.

AG Josh Shapiro turns towards Gov. Tom Wolf and shakes his hand. Rep. Todd Stephens is visible in the background.
Gov. Tom Wolf and AG Josh Shapiro shake hands alongside state Rep. Todd Stephens at a reproductive health press conference in July. (Courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services)

Stephens voted against a GOP attempt to amend the state constitution to say there is no right to an abortion.

Planned Parenthood endorsed Stephens in 2018 and 2020, but he lost the endorsement this year. A spokesperson for the organization told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Stephens lost the endorsement because he “did not use his platform to convince others to vote no.”

Planned Parenthood Opposes House Bill 1095 by WHYY News on Scribd

Cerrato said that there is more than what meets the eye to House Bill 1095.

“It was designed to appear to be tough on domestic abuse and domestic abusers. However, it was a personhood bill,” Cerrato said. “Unfortunately, in this day and age, personhood bills are a very, very slippery slope. If you set the precedent that you can have life imprisonment for the death of the fetus, that clearly opens the door if we ban abortion here in the state.”

She added that the language state Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) used in his memo about the legislation also concerned her.

No side has taken further legal action. Cerrato’s campaign wrote a response and sent it to Stephens’ attorney but never received a follow-up.

What is motivating Stephens, Cerrato to represent the area?

Despite the recent clash, Cerrato said that she has always had a “decent relationship” with Stephens on a personal level, but she said that they differ on their approach.

“We really need to stop having passive legislators. Over 1,200 Democratic bills have been put into the House this session — and one has been enacted into law. Clearly, we’re not seeing a government that’s working for the people and I plan to change that when I get to Harrisburg,” Cerrato said.

Stephens said that he has never been afraid to break with his party and that his approach as a moderate legislator has delivered true results in this district.

“I’m 12 years in the House. I’ll be a standing committee chairman, if reelected. I think that I’ve demonstrated the leadership necessary to get things done and as my seniority allows me to move up the ranks, I think it’ll be able to have an even greater impact on the legislation that’s moving and certainly on the communities that I represent and the people that live there,” Stephens said.

Redistricting slightly altered the boundaries of the 151st District. It covers all of Horsham Township and Ambler Borough, and parts of Montgomery and Upper Dublin townships. Although the margins did not increase by much, there are even more registered Democrats in the area than before.

Stephens and his campaign

Stephens, 51, a former prosecutor, has represented the 151st House District since he was first elected in 2010.

For his reelection campaign, he has focused on the economy, gun violence, environment, and clean water. Stephens said that his record speaks for itself, pointing to his introduction of a “red flag” bill in Pennsylvania.

Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery speaks at a press conference in Norristown, Pa., on Tuesday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

He also touted his record in trying to get toxic “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS, out of drinking water across the state. Additionally, he is calling for an increase in the state’s education budget. Following last year’s deadly tornado in Upper Dublin, Stephens wants there to be a greater focus on stormwater management.

“I’ve never been afraid to break with my party, when it’s the right thing to do for the communities and the people that I represent. And I’ve been able to achieve significant results and make a real difference in the communities that I represent,” Stephens said.

Cerrato wants a chance at representing the 151st District

Melissa Cerrato, 40, previously worked as a district director for state Rep. Liz Hanbidge when she won her seat in Blue Bell in 2018. Before that, Cerrato worked as a nanny, elder caregiver, and Uber driver.

She said that her background has opened her eyes to just how much is not being done for Pennsylvanians.

A woman smiles at the camera.
Melissa Cerrato is facing off against Republican incumbent Rep. Todd Stephens in the 2022 race for Pa.’s 151st state district. (Courtesy of Melissa Cerrato’s campaign)

Her campaign is also putting a spotlight on education funding and holding charter schools accountable. Cerrato said that there are huge disparities in education funding that have yet to be adequately addressed.

“It’s something that really is important to our future because the children that we’re teaching today are going to be the people that take on jobs in the future and help support Pennsylvania’s economy. So we really need to put the investment in where it will be most fruitful in the future for everyone in this state,” Cerrato said.

Additionally, Cerrato has promised to place a focus on wages and climate change, if elected. She has also prioritized health care, specifically abortion rights.

“I have four daughters myself, and I just can’t imagine them having less rights than I’ve been entitled to in my entire life,” Cerrato said. “But it goes just so much deeper, because I truly believe that this is just a stepping stone for the extremists in Harrisburg. It’s a door that they hope to open in a pathway of stripping so many more people of so many more rights.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the boundaries of the 151st state House district.

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