Editor’s note: On Politics is a new Tuesday column in which we will analyze key local, state and national political developments of the past week.
While many eyes will be on the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests this fall, Luzerne County very likely has a new hot ticket to watch in November.
As we reported on Friday, former long-running WILK Radio host Sue Henry announced she plans to run as a Republican for state representative against Democratic incumbent Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski.
The opportunity arose because Gregory Wolovich Jr., the Republican nominee in the 121st Legislative District, said he will vacate the slot because he believes Henry would be a better fit.
The county Republican Party must formally name Wolovich’s replacement, but Henry said party leaders have indicated the nomination is hers.
Henry’s apparent coronation as the GOP candidate could turn what many expected to be another non-contest in the district into an interesting battle, to say the least.
Democrat Pashinski, 72, is seeking his seventh two-year term in the legislature. He is a respected and well-liked incumbent with deep roots in the community.
But in place of 25-year-old Wolovich, Pashinski now is expected to face Henry, 53, who brings to the race one of the most recognized names in Wyoming Valley media circles. Henry’s listeners may not always have agreed with her, but there certainly were a lot of them, and many were deeply loyal.
In an interview with the Times Leader, Henry said property tax reform and the opioid crisis are among the most pressing issues she would look to address.
With due respect to Henry, the opioid epidemic is one of the defining American issues of our time, and it’s hard to imagine any one candidate having the answers to that complex social crisis — though we certainly need lawmakers who understand just how dire the situation is, and a sense of what government can and cannot do to resolve it.
On the other hand, Henry seems poised to make property tax reform her signature issue, and it’s one that’s likely to resonate deeply with voters in the 121st.
Henry said last week she would back legislation to eliminate or drastically reduce reliance on real estate taxes to fund public education through other means, such as increasing the state’s personal income and sales taxes.
“It’s time to spread this burden,” she said, asserting Pashinski has not “lifted a finger” to advance taxation change. “Where has he been for 11 years?”
Pashinski has countered that tax reduction should be done responsibly, so that the burden is not shifted too heavily onto other sectors — notably businesses, which would suffer if sales taxes were raised too much or too quickly.
While it may not have the gut-wrenching headline appeal of opioids, it is probably not a stretch to say property tax fairness is the among the top concerns for Pennsylvania homeowners — especially older, blue collar residents. Such voters, many of whom struggle to keep the lights on and the tax collector at bay, are the sort of fed-up silent majority who can swing an election.
That would be quite a swing, for the 121st, however.
The district, which includes Ashley, Fairview Township, Laurel Run, Wilkes-Barre, Wilkes-Barre Township and part of Hanover Township, has long been a Democratic stronghold.
Pashinski handily defeated Libertarian challenger Betsy Summers in 2016 and 2014, and ran unopposed in 2012. He has not faced a Republican opponent since James O’Meara in 2010, whom Pashinski defeated with a resounding 71.6 percent of the vote.
Could Henry be the Republican to finally break through in the 121st?
Aside from her name recognition, commitment to property tax reform and obvious ease behind the microphone, Henry might be stepping onto the political stage at a time when another important factor could work in her favor: Rising Republican registration numbers in Luzerne County.
Democrats still outnumber Republicans countywide, as we reported last month, but we are nevertheless seeing a steady rise in GOP voters while Dem numbers gradually decline.
In a Democratic county that went red for Donald Trump in 2016 — putting us under the microscope of journalists and political scientists from around the world — it’s not inconceivable that a Republican could make significant headway in this district.
Don’t count Eddie out, not by a long shot. Incumbency is still a powerful defense — and as noted, Pashinski’s name carries a great deal of weight and respect. But for perhaps the first time, he faces a challenger of real substance with a powerful voice.
As another radio host used to say: You better listen.