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Wansacz Might Try To Reclaim 114th House Seat

BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUKDecember 22, 2018

Jim Wansacz might become the first person elected to the same local state House seat twice via a special election. Wansacz hasn’t said it publicly, but multiple sources say he wants to run for the 114th state House District seat vacated when state Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich died Oct. 16. Kavulich won re-election unopposed Nov. 6 despite his death. Wansacz piled up an interesting political career after first winning the seat. Wansacz, a 46-year-old Old Forge Democrat, first won it in June 2000, defeating Republican former Abington Heights School Director Tom Parry in a special election that got nationwide attention. The seat opened up midterm when Frank Serafini, a Republican and the 114th’s longtime representative, resigned after a federal conviction. When Serafini quit, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 101-99 in the 203-seat House with the 114th and two other seats vacant. President Bill Clinton, about to leave office, noticed the narrow gap and thought he could help. Clinton sent Vice President Al Gore to Lackawanna County to campaign for Wansacz less than two weeks before the Wansacz-Parry special election. After mistakenly referring to Wansacz during an airport rally as John Wansacz — the name of Wansacz’s father and also a former state rep — Gore, who was running for president, called Wansacz to apologize the next morning when he read it in The Tribune. Gore also invited Wansacz to a health care forum he hosted at Allied Services. The same day Gore arrived, Gov. Tom Ridge, rumored as potential vice presidential running mate for Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the Republican presidential ticket, stumped for Parry. It was a wild election, which Wansacz won by fewer than 800 votes, perhaps partly because many voters pulled the wrong levers in voting machines with a ballot set up in a somewhat confusing way. Wansacz easily won election to a full two-year term in November 2000 and re-election every two years after that — serving five full terms in all. He had an interesting run in the House. He fought for rules to require landfill owners to prove that the benefits of expanding their landfills outweighed the harms, but he also got close to a House Democratic leadership whose top guns — former whip Mike Veon and former leader Bill DeWeese — went to jail on corruption charges. Testifying in Veon’s defense at a trial in March 2010, Wansacz said he attended dinners in Veon’s Capitol office after weekly pickup basketball games with other lawmakers, staffers and others, the Associated Press reported. Prosecutors say Veon charged taxpayers $15,600 for those dinners between 2002 and 2006 as he also collected taxpayer-funded expense per diems of $126 to $148, which are supposed to pay for food and lodging, the AP reported. Wansacz said the group always discussed legislation during the post-basketball events, which also included cigars, card games, meals picked up by state workers and sometimes liquor, according to the AP. Veon was busy during the day, but accessible Tuesday nights after basketball games, he said. “We did have to eat, and that was a way we could get together,” Wansacz testified. That was only a couple of weeks after The Times-Tribune reported that Wansacz routinely collected up to $163 a day for meals and lodging while in Harrisburg, even though he owned a house where he stayed while down there on legislative business. Essentially, the expense money contributed to paying his mortgage. “I lose money on it,” Wansacz said. “I’m just hoping to get my money back.” Right after that, Wansacz decided against running for re-election and set his sights on the state Senate. Bob Mellow had announced his retirement after 40 years. Wansacz finished fourth in the Democratic primary election, behind the winner, John Blake, insurance executive Chuck Volpe and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty. His political career appeared to be over, but then Lackawanna County Commissioner Mike Washo decided he didn’t want to seek re-election, giving Wansacz an opportunity to re-enter the game. He teamed up for the 2011 primary election with Scranton School Director Brian Jeffers against Washo’s former running mate, Commissioner Corey O’Brien, and O’Brien’s running mate, Blakely Mayor Jeanette Acciare-Mariani, and others. O’Brien and Wansacz won; their running mates lost. The two Democrats easily won the majority in the commissioners office with Republican nominee Patrick O’Malley finishing third. O’Brien, at least partly because he grew tired of deferring to Wansacz, resigned in 2015. Despite his past vocal opposition to landfills and out-of-state trash imports, Wansacz refused to come out against Keystone Sanitary Landfill owner Louis DeNaples’ controversial plan to expand his landfill as the 2015 commissioner election approached. O’Malley switched back to the Democrats before the 2015 primary election and teamed up with Wansacz, but Wansacz lost as county employees and many Democratic stalwarts upset with his hard-charging ways rebelled. Wansacz lost despite a focus on frugality that helped lift the county to a budget surplus of more than $11 million by the time he left office in January 2016. Even an independent audit approved. Wansacz said he approached his job as if taxpayers’ money was his own. “In the private sector, I’d be getting a bonus check. In the public sector, I get the boot,” he said after his defeat. Now he’s back, hoping for another shot for a job that will pay $88,610.42 next year. Wansacz isn’t the first House member statewide to win election twice through a special election. State Rep. Ed Neilson, D-174, Philadelphia, won the 169th House District seat in November 2011 to serve out the rest of that vacant seat’s term, according to his online biography. Neilson left that seat and won a city council seat, but then ran and won in a special election for the 174th House District seat in August 2015. BORYS KRAWCZENIUK, The Times-Tribune’s politics reporter, writes Random Notes.

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