Updated 5:03 p.m.
For the next two and a half months, folks living in parts of South Philly, Center City, and the River Wards will go unrepresented in the Pennsylvania state House.
State Rep. Michael O’Brien, who has represented House District 175 since 2007, died from a heart attack in his Fishtown home Monday morning. While news spread of his passing, several Philly area legislators offered their condolences — including Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia City Council and South Philly state Rep. Jordan Harris.
To honor O’Brien, Gov. Tom Wolf also ordered flags to fly at half-staff at public buildings and grounds throughout the state.
Practically speaking, the loss of O’Brien also means Philadelphia is down one vote in the state legislature. There is no plan to replace him before the November general election, House Speaker Mike Turzai’s office confirmed.
Why not? Like most things in government, it would just take too long.
‘The issue becomes moot’
Per the Pennsylvania Elections Code, it takes some time to properly fill a vacancy in the state House.
Whenever there’s a sudden vacancy, the speaker of the House is responsible for calling a special election to fill the seat. The election is required to be ordered within 10 days of the vacancy, and the vote must take place at least 60 days after that announcement.
All in all, a special election can take more than 70 days to come to fruition. With just 22 days until the midterms, officials simply don’t have the time.
“With the regular fall election so close, the issue becomes moot in this instance,” said Bill Patton, spokesperson for Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County. “With the proximity to the general election and [O’Brien] not being on the ballot, his seat will stay open until the next member is sworn in.”
And as far as that next member goes, there’s little mystery as to who will fill state Rep. O’Brien’s seat.
Last summer, O’Brien controversially announced his intention to retire about two months after the May primary election. It was too late for any other candidates — Republican or Democrat — to run for his seat. Instead, the 175th District’s five ward leaders selected his replacement.
They picked Mary Isaacson, O’Brien’s former chief of staff, who is running unopposed to the seat. She’ll likely be sworn in on Jan. 1, 2019, at which point the 175th District will again be represented in the state House.
Three vacant seats
Luckily, this instance won’t leave Philly out of the loop for very long. There are only three days left in the year that the House is in session: Oct. 16 and 17 and Nov. 13.
And even then, Philly’s 175th District isn’t the only one with a vacancy.
In June, Republican state Rep. Eli Evankovich of Murryville announced he’d retire in August to pursue other employment. Then in July, Rep. Flo Fabrizio — a Democrat from Erie — died from pancreatic cancer.
In both cases, Turzai declined to call a special election.
“It is up to discretion and judgment,” said Neal Lesher, spokesperson for the speaker. “There would not be enough session days to justify the cost of a special election.”
Philly residents in the 175th District who have concerns or comments can still reach out to O’Brien’s office, according to Patton. O’Brien’s former constituent service office is still open at 610 N. Second St., and you can reach staff by phone at 215-503-3245.