Ed Neilson was on his way from his campaign office at the Grant Academy Shopping Center to his election night party at Chickie’s & Pete’s on Roosevelt Boulevard when he received a phone call from his opponent.
It was about 9:45 p.m. when Dave Kralle called Neilson to congratulate him on winning the special election in the 169th Legislative District. Neilson was unopposed in the Democratic primary, held the same day.
“I’m very humbled,” he said. “It was such a group effort.”
Neilson defeated Kralle, a Republican, by an unofficial count of 3,453 to 2,941, or 54 percent to 46 percent.
Registered Democrats hold a more than 20-percentage-point advantage on Republicans in the district.
“I knew it would be close,” Neilson said. “Republicans come out better than Democrats in a primary. History tells you that. But the people of the 169th spoke, and they want me to fight their fight.”
Neilson will serve out the remainder of the term of Republican Denny O’Brien, who joined City Council at the start of the year. His swearing-in ceremony will take place on May 8.
In the Nov. 6 general election, Neilson will face a familiar foe, Kralle, who defeated teacher John McCann with 68 percent of the vote to win the Republican primary.
The winner of the general election will serve a two-year term. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has voted to move the 169th district to a fast-growing area of York County, pending court approval.
If that redistricting plan holds, the Neilson/Kralle winner in the fall would have to challenge Democratic Rep. Mike McGeehan in 2014 to keep his seat.
Although Democrats agreed to the plan, it was the GOP that pushed for the seat to move.
“Now, it’s a Democratic seat. We want to keep it here,” Neilson said.
Kralle, who worked for O’Brien in his House and Council offices, conceded to Neilson in front of supporters at Rosewood Caterers.
“He has big shoes to fill,” said Kralle, who had O’Brien’s support.
Kralle beat Neilson in the district’s biggest ward, the 66th, but “not by enough,” he said. Neilson won the other three wards comfortably to more than offset his 85-vote deficit in the 66th.
A former political director of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, Neilson went on to serve as deputy labor secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell. He now handles government relations and business development for a law firm.
Neilson plans to keep his campaign office open and will also have a district office at a site to be determined, promising that it will be handicapped accessible. He’ll also speak to the presidents of local senior citizen organizations to form a senior task force.
In the early-morning hours on Election Day, Neilson’s supporters hung voting reminders on door handles and decorated polling places. Poll workers showed voters a blown-up diagram of the ballot so they could find the special election and Neilson’s button in the booth.
Family, friends, neighbors and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 representatives backed Neilson at the polls.
Neilson said those supporters had influence in a close, low-turnout election.
“Everybody was out. Each one of those votes counted,” he said.
Neilson ran a traditional campaign for a state House seat, knocking on doors and putting up lawn signs. His wife, Doris, and friend Jeff Graham were especially effective at persuading voters to put a sign on their lawn.
The Democrat also had the support of the police and firefighters unions and other labor organizations. He raised enough money to run numerous campaign commercials on cable television. Kralle couldn’t match that.
“It was hard work and a team effort from labor and volunteers,” said Neilson campaign manager Brian Eddis.
The campaign turned negative in the end, with Kralle getting slammed by Neilson, McCann and the FOP. Even a group called “Concerned Irish Americans of Philadelphia” bashed Kralle, a proud member of Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 17.
Kralle was on the defensive because of his age (25), campaign contributions by former Mayor John Street and a school vouchers group, role in a mural memorializing slain police officer John Pawlowski and the fact he does not own a home. A Neilson for the Northeast flier dismissed him as an “immature kid.”
“The last-minute negative attacks really hurt,” Kralle said.
Kralle seemed particularly irked that a McCann letter stated that he “solicited” campaign contributions from Street.
“I never solicited contributions from John Street,” said Kralle, adding that the former mayor was his teacher at a class at Temple and that he sent $350 in online donations on his own, a version confirmed by Street.
Kralle said he is proud that he ran a positive campaign.
“I have no regrets,” he said.
Among those joining Kralle were his mom, brother, sister, O’Brien and state Rep. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County.
O’Brien believes the negatives were damaging but credited Kralle with coming close to victory with a positive message.
First elected to the state House in 1976 at age 23, O’Brien recalls Republicans nominating Jerry Ford for president that year, only to lament that, “We picked the wrong guy,” after hearing a stirring convention speech from Ronald Reagan.
“I think we picked the wrong guy,” O’Brien said of the 169th special election. ••
Votes in the 169th Legislative District special election
Ward Kralle Neilson
57 462 814
58 154 327
65 178 250
66 2,147 2,062
Overall 2,941 3,453EndFragment EndFragment