Pennsylvania Capitol Building

HARRISBURG – Democrats hope the fallout from the biggest controversy of the fall legislative session will help them make a dent in the Republican supermajority in the state Senate.

Republicans hold 33 of the 50 seats in the state Senate. Half of the seats in the Senate are up for election this year, including the seat left vacant when Republican Scott Wagner resigned to run for governor.

The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee this week began airing television ads in southeastern Pennsylvania calling six Republican senators, along with Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati “too cowardly to vote” on legislation that would have opened a window for civil lawsuits for victims of old child sex crimes to seek justice against the Catholic Church and other institutions.

Scarnati has maintained that Democrats were trying to politicize the controversy.

Advocates who’ve been fighting to get the civil window created in Pennsylvania said it’s Scarnati who’s made the standoff political.

“Sen. Scarnati’s refusal to let his caucus vote according to each Senator’s conscience is nothing but politics,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank specializing in child abuse policy. “It is callous toward the entire population of child sex abuse victims.”

She said Senate Republicans can solve the problem by returning to the Capitol and passing Senate Bill 261, which included the civil window after it was passed by bipartisan vote of 173-21.

If the Senate doesn’t vote on the legislation before Election Day, survivors of child abuse plan to be at polling stations to let voters know where the candidates stand on the issue, she said.

“They are complaining about politics but my hope is that it’s really their consciences that are bothering them,” she said. “This issue is clear and CHILD USA has the data from all other states showing that their extreme measures to protect institutions that enabled child sex abuse are bad public policy.”

While the controversy dominated news coverage through the fall legislative session, it’s far from clear that the issue is going to influence enough voters’ decisions to make a difference in many or any of the Senate races, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

“Most people would probably think that the two-year window for lawsuits is reasonable,” he said. “The real question is to what degree does it resonate with voters?”

He said the issue doesn’t seem to be driving the level of interest and enthusiasm statewide that education funding has in prior elections. This election, there doesn’t really seem to be any particular state issue that’s galvanized attention, Madonna said.

The ad targeting southeastern Pennsylvania Republican senators is unfair because at least two of those included – state Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, and state Sen. Thomas McGarrigle, R-Delaware County — have supported the concept of the civil window, said Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.

As a result, he said the ad was an “unfair characterization” of those member's views.

Democrats counter that all Senate Republicans need to share the blame because their caucus leaders didn’t bring the matter up for a vote.

“The complete failure of Senate Republicans to pass something as fundamental as this shows that we need wholesale change in the state Senate,” said Brandon Cwalina, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. “Everyone in the Republican supermajority has a share in the blame.”

CNHI PA State Reporter

CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com.

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