2022 was a momentous year for La’Tasha Mayes. The issue she has organized on for decades, reproductive rights, jumped to the forefront of American politics, and she achieved a long-held goal by winning election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

State Rep.-elect La’Tasha Mayes

The 2022 midterm elections were seen in part as a de facto referendum on abortion access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade protections in June, and in Pennsylvania, that translated into a wave of wins for pro-choice Democrats like Mayes. 

She was not surprised by the results, she said. “I know the people of Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, Pittsburgh. Whether a person calls themselves progressive or not, everybody wants to control their body. Regardless of party, regardless of race, age, gender, where you live, people want that basic human right.”

During a mid-December interview at Tazza D’oro coffee shop in Highland Park, which doubled as her campaign office, she recounted her post-election trip to Harrisburg for new member orientation. She felt the trip was a full-circle moment.

“I’ve walked up the steps into the rotunda many times, but when we went after the election … it was a different feeling,” she said. “I had a sense of, this is exactly where I belong.”

Mayes, a Morningside resident, will be one of an unusually high number of new voices arriving in Harrisburg when lawmakers are formally sworn in on Jan. 3. Redistricting and political shifts resulted in about a quarter of House seats turning over.

A new majority could be coming, too, for the first time since 2011. Democrats won 102 seats to the Republicans’ 101, but three vacancies in Democrat-held districts mean the party can’t have a voting majority until after special elections next year.

State Rep.-elect Arvind Venkat.

The next legislative session could be an eventful one as the incoming governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro, tries to make his imprint and long-deferred election law tweaks could come up for a vote. 

One death and two resignations among the Democratic House ranks have left the party with 99 voting members to the Republicans’ 101. This month, each party claimed control of the chamber, and the matter is likely to be settled in court.

Allegheny County’s delegation has four new members heading into next year, adding to its own remarkable turnover over the past several years. Of the county’s 18 House representatives, just five were first elected prior to 2018. Joining Mayes as new legislators are Democrats Arvind Venkat (McCandless) and Mandy Steele (Fox Chapel) and Republican Andrew Kuzma (Elizabeth Township).

“When you have new legislators, you bring new energy and new ideas,” Venkat said. “I think that we will, as a group, need to be a voice for the change that people demanded in this election.”

Bringing climate and health concerns to the House

Kuzma and Steele had previously been elected to municipal council offices. Mayes and Venkat bring experience from outside government. Venkat, as he often mentioned on the campaign trail, goes from being an emergency room doctor to lawmaker. 

As president of the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Medicine and a board member of a local ambulance authority, he said he worked with state legislators on bills regulating surprise medical billing and preparedness for crises such as pandemics. “Unfortunately, many of our political leaders over a number of years had kind of nodded their heads and not really done anything in the area of preparedness,” Venkat said. “And when COVID hit, we saw the results.” 

State Rep.-elect Mandy Steele.

Steele was elected to Fox Chapel’s borough council in 2019. Though being a state lawmaker is a big step up from a municipal role, she said the experience taught her how state funding interacts with nearly every part of local governance, and it showed her how to work across the aisle on a majority-Republican council.

She pointed to her ordinance to ban toxic coal tar on roadways, which she championed in Fox Chapel and then helped through the legislative process in 21 other communities, many of which were Republican-led. 

Steele said she feels elected officials and voters alike are talking about climate differently now compared to even a few years ago, and that running on the urgency of climate change as well as the green economy can be a winning electoral formula.

“Not only are we taking the urgent, necessary action on climate, which is why I ran, but we’re creating jobs and stimulating our economy,” she said. “When I knocked on doors and told people that story of hope and optimism, they got on board in a big way.”

Looming uncertainty

Kuzma, the county’s only new Republican representative, is 26 years old and defeated incumbent Republican Mike Puskaric in May, running on a promise to bring the district a “stronger conservative voice” in Harrisburg. Kuzma’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.

State Rep.-elect Andrew Kuzma.

If Republicans gain control, at least until the special elections, Mayes is worried that they could bring an anti-abortion constitutional amendment up for a vote. 

Republicans passed an amendment in July that would declare that the Pennsylvania constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion. Constitutional amendments must be passed by the legislature in two consecutive sessions, at which point they go on the ballot for voter approval. Spotlight PA reported that the House Republicans may indeed look to pass constitutional amendments prior to the special elections — potentially requiring voter ID and curbing the governor’s regulatory power — but that abortion is unlikely to be included.

“I’m deeply concerned about it,” Mayes said. “That’s the reality of the unsettled majority. None of us should be resting or thinking that our eventual majority will protect us from constitutional amendments.”

The disputed majority, in a way, symbolizes how Mayes views the road ahead: There have been gains, but much work remains. 

“There will always be the need to defend. … But now, I’m going to bring a bolder vision for a post-Roe legislative session and what those policies can be,” she said. With her party’s gains in the recent elections, she said, “I think you just get more room to spread your wings and more breath to breathe life into what’s possible.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Jack Troy.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...