Down to the wire in the 169th district

State Representative hopeful John McCann, left, along with 2-year-old son Quentin McCann, show their love of animals while canvassing around Holy Family University on Tuesday, April 3, 2012. John McCann is running for State Representative in the 169th Legislative District during April 24th’s special elections. (Greg Bezanis)

Residents of the 169th Legislative District haven’t had much of a say in choosing their state representative in recent years.

Democrats hadn’t even bothered to challenge former Republican Rep. Denny O’Brien since 1998.

O’Brien was elected to an at-large City Council seat last November and resigned his House seat before moving to City Hall in January.

As part of negotiations within the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission, House Republicans and Democrats agreed to each move two of their seats, based on population trends.

One of the GOP seats chosen to be moved was the 169th. It was headed to a fast-growing area of York County.

The residents of the existing 169th were to be split among the districts of Reps. Brendan Boyle, Kevin Boyle, Mike McGeehan, John Sabatina Jr. and John Taylor.

However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the maps unconstitutional because they unfairly split cities, townships and boroughs.

Thus, the decade-old lines will be used in the April 24 primary.

The commission is expected to approve a new map on Thursday that, if OK’d by the Supreme Court, would take effect for the 2014 elections.

All indications are that the 169th District will still be relocated to York County.

For now, three candidates are vying for what would be one two-year term, with two of them seeking to also fill the final seven months of O’Brien’s term.

For years, Democrats craved the seat, hoping that O’Brien would retire. Now that he’s finally gone, only one Democrat bothered to put his name on the ballot.

Ed Neilson is a former political director for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. He went on to serve as deputy secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry under Gov. Ed Rendell. Today, he is director of business development and government relations at Chartwell Law Offices. He works six-hour mornings before hitting the campaign trail.

Neilson, 48, is guaranteed a spot on the ballot in the general election on Nov. 6. He’s also facing Republican Dave Kralle in a special election on primary day.

Kralle, 25, worked for O’Brien when he served in the House. He also had a brief stint in his Council office before leaving to run for the House seat.

In the Republican primary, Kralle will face John McCann.

McCann, 34, planned to challenge McGeehan, but the rejected maps kept him in the 169th. He’s a law school graduate who teaches eighth-grade civics at a middle school in Princeton, N.J.

The Times followed all three candidates last week as they campaigned door-to-door.

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McCann has less time to campaign than Neilson or Kralle because he teaches a full day in Central Jersey. He had more time last week, as John Witherspoon Middle School was on Easter break.

O’Brien and the party are supporting Kralle in the primary. McCann held a fund-raiser last month at Joey O’s and has another event Sunday afternoon at Paddy Whacks. The money will pay for literature and campaign-day workers at the 37 polling places.

On a visit last week to voters in Torresdale’s 65th Ward, 10th Division, McCann was joined by his 2½-year-old son Quentin and his younger brother Brian.

Quentin, wearing a large McCann button, likes watching Caillou, but enjoys campaigning more. He knocks on doors, pets dogs, hands literature to citizens most likely to vote in the upcoming Republican primary and tells them, “Vote John McCann.”

The candidate tells voters of his background, that he’s a Father Judge High School and Temple University School of Law graduate. He tells them of his 11 years in the classroom and his decision to remain living in Philadelphia.

Voters receive a piece of literature that features pictures of the candidate, his Web site address, his background and ideas to reform public education, cut taxes, refuse the $163 per diem, toughen laws on animal cruelty and maintain resources for police officers and firefighters.

Some voters tell McCann that they will vote straight Republican, but he reminds them that they can do that only in a general election and that the primary includes two candidates.

As the unendorsed candidate, McCann collected nominating petitions on his own.

“This is the second time I’m meeting a lot of voters. That’s a good part of the process,” he said. “It’s an ambitious goal, but I’m trying to hit all the doors. It’s an important part of democracy. You’re meeting people and making a connection, and they’re putting a face to the name.”

People are mostly friendly, though one man kiddingly (we think) said, “I hate Irish people.” McCann is not only Irish, he was born on St. Patrick’s Day.

McCann said talking to voters individually can have an impact.

“If you’re willing to work in a state rep race,” he said, “you have a shot.”

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Neilson campaigned on the 11800 block of Basile Road, part of the 66th Ward, 8th Division. He had a basic message for all voters.

“The big difference between me and the other guy is that I’ve got five kids, I own a home and I’m not twenty-five years old no more,” he said in comparing himself to Kralle.

If elected, he’d open an office in a prominent and accessible location in a shopping center, then fight to keep the 169th in the Northeast.

Voters who answer their door receive a “Neilson for the Northeast” Phillies schedule magnet and a piece of literature that highlights his past efforts to create jobs and cut government waste. The theme on the brochure is, “The experience we need. Northeast values we trust.”

Voters who are not home receive a hand-printed note that says, “I am sorry we missed you today. Please come vote on April 24th in the special election. Push button #301. Experience matters! Ed.”

Neilson, whose five sons range in age from 6 to 27, seems to enjoy the campaign trail. Many of the voters are members of unions that have endorsed his candidacy.

Since Neilson is running in a special election, he is reaching out to Democrats, Republicans and independents likely to show up at the polls in two weeks. He acknowledges being a little worried that Republican turnout will be higher than normal because the GOP presidential race is ongoing.

Neilson has raised about $200,000 in the race, enough for plenty of lawn signs, newspaper advertisements and campaign mailers, but he values door-to-door contact.

“I think this is more effective than the mail,” he said. “You have to explain the special election. We’ve never had that up here. That’s why I’m working so hard.”

Neilson has also campaigned at supermarkets, bowling alleys and senior citizen centers. He is benefiting from a major outreach by the AFL-CIO to union households.

The candidate is also running television commercials. One features him touring blighted properties with City Councilman Bobby Henon. The other, titled “Why I’m supporting Ed,” features U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, former congressman Bob Borski, police union president John McNesby, electricians union boss John Dougherty and retired police detective Pat Boyle.

Despite all that, Neilson believes the personal touch is what will get people to the polls.

“If I don’t ask for your vote, I won’t get it,” he said. “Signs don’t vote.”

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Kralle’s plan is to knock on the doors of as many registered voters as possible, no matter their voting history. He expects to get to more than 80 percent of doors by April 24.

On Saturday afternoon, during a canvas of the 66th Ward, 33rd Division, he gave a similar pitch to most voters. He’s a graduate of Our Lady of Calvary Elementary School and Archbishop Ryan High School. He is a lector and Eucharistic minister at Our Lady of Calvary. He’s the former in-house baseball director at Calvary A.A.

If elected in the special election, he’ll reopen O’Brien’s district office on Academy Road. He’d be in the Republican majority and, he suggests, more likely to be able to keep the 169th in Philadelphia.

Among those Kralle saw on Saturday is attorney Anne Marie Coyle, who considered entering the race. She has a Kralle sign on her lawn.

A couple of residents note Kralle’s youth, but he does not see that as a negative.

“Denny O’Brien was twenty-three years old and had no kids when he was elected, and he became speaker of the House,” he said.

O’Brien joined Kralle at the doorsteps of voters whose polling place is at Chalfont Recreation Center.

The councilman, who’ll be featured in a robo-call, enthusiastically greeted residents and gave an enthusiastic endorsement of his former aide, describing him as “like a son.” O’Brien, who turns 60 in June, said Kralle wouldn’t need on-the-job training and that they would form a “one-two punch.”

“Vote in the special election first, then go back and vote in the primary,” he told one resident.

The House Republican Campaign Committee has funded three mailings — all featuring O’Brien — and sent a staffer, Ryan Travis, to serve as field director.

Democrats hold a voter-registration advantage of about 55 percent to 34 percent, but Republicans often fare well in the 169th. In 2010, Gov. Tom Corbett won the district, while Sen. Pat Toomey lost by just two points. GOP turnout could be higher than normal if presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum appear to still be in a competitive contest on primary day.

Kralle might get outspent 5-to-1 by Neilson, but he values knocking in doors.

“We owe it to voters to ask for their vote in person,” he said.

While McCann needs votes only in the primary and Neilson needs them only in the special election, Kralle must get people to vote for him twice. He thinks the novelty of a special election is working to his benefit.

“It’s a wonderful marketing tool for the campaign,” he said. ••