BEDFORD - The House seat held for 26 years by state Rep. Dick Hess will remain empty for at least two months, with an as-yet unscheduled special election set to replace the late representative, according to political experts and the Pennsylvania Election Code.
Hess died Friday at age 74 from surgical complications, leaving his 78th District seat open and the influential House Transportation Committee without a chairman. The 78th District covers all of Fulton County and parts of Huntingdon and Bedford counties.
According to the state election code, House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, must file a writ of election - a document ordering a special vote - to county officials within 10 days of the seat's vacancy. The writ will set an election date at least 60 days away, said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based attorney specializing in elections and campaigns.
The November municipal elections are exactly 60 days from Friday, the day Hess died, so a special vote can't be held that day, Bonin said.
A vote to choose Hess' successor likely will be held either late this year or in early 2014, Bedford County Commissioner Kirt Morris and Director of Elections Kelly Detwiler said Friday.
Bonin said Smith can, but isn't required to, consult with county officials on the best day for an election.
Several people with knowledge of the process said it's unlikely Smith will issue a writ of election until after Hess' funeral on Tuesday. Bedford County officials said it's possible that the vote could end up in January to avoid the winter holidays.
Bonin said the vote would almost certainly use the current legislative map, not the map approved this year and set to take effect in the next state election cycle.
Due to redistricting, the 78th District is set to lose a few Bedford County municipalities and all its Huntingdon County areas while gaining a small portion of Franklin County.
"If not, you'd be in a very weird situation where some of the people wouldn't be represented at all," he said.
It's not clear who might run for Hess' seat. The veteran Republican legislator handily won the last several elections, sometimes winning even the Democratic ballot spot thanks to write-ins, Bedford County officials said. Covering some of the state's most conservative counties, the 78th District has elected Republicans since 1969, when the current representation system was established.
Whoever is elected to the seat will serve less than a year before the November 2014 election gives voters another choice, this time with the new district boundaries.
Smith will choose Hess' successor as House Transportation Committee chairman, as well, though House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said there's no immediate plan for the position. Committee chairmen are chosen from among the House's most senior members.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.