Leslie Baum Rossi, 50, was picked to replace former Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland), the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Sunday.
A popular lawmaker in House GOP leadership, Reese, 42, died of an apparent brain aneurysm on Jan. 2.
Rossi defeated four other candidates for the nod, which was decided in private by appointed party officials. Among those she beat is Angela Reese, the widow of the deceased representative and a business manager at a local church.
But what set Rossi apart, said Westmoreland County GOP Chair Bill Bretz in an email, was Rossi’s time as an entrepreneur — she works at a real estate firm with her husband — community volunteer, and her work ethic as an activist for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
“The race was very competitive and Leslie Rossi prevailed with the full support of the committee as our nominee,” Westmoreland County GOP Chairman Bill Bretz said in an email.
At the Westmoreland County home painted in red, white and blue with a 12-foot Trump outside, Rossi handed out campaign gear, registered voters, and promoted Republican candidates while having “meaningful discussions with the voters about Trump’s America First agenda,” she said in an email sent to supporters after her win.
Barring a major upset, Leslie Rossi will be representing parts of Westmoreland and Somerset counties in the PA legislature in 3 months time. https://t.co/wxzmIjHPp9— James Santelli - Weekend Edition (@JamesSantelli) February 21, 2021
Her work did not go unnoticed. Rossi attended Trump’s White House ceremony during last summer’s Republican National Convention, where he accepted his renomination.
“Trust me, President Trump LOVED it but the key here is that I didn’t do it for him,” Rossi told the Capital-Star in an email. “I did it for the people and they know that and I have their support behind me.”
This grassroots experience, Rossi argued, means she is close to the district and its residents, and can better represent them in Harrisburg.
Among her priorities are protecting gun rights, improving vaccine distribution, and “voter integrity” measures.
In her campaign launch, Rossi repeated Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, telling the Tribune-Review that “I feel, and will always feel, that he won and by a lot in our state.”
There are only three documented cases of voter fraud in Pennsylvania, all committed by Republicans. Everyone from federal judges and local election officials to former U.S. Attorney General William Barr have agreed there is no evidence of fraud in Trump’s defeat.
Rossi also noted her special election will take place during the municipal primary on May 18, when a constitutional amendment to restrict Gov. Tom Wolf’s — and future governors’ — emergency powers can be ratified by voters.
“Not only will I encourage them to get out and vote for me on May 18th, they absolutely must go vote on the referendums if they want to bring the power back to the people that the governor has taken from us in his overreach of power,” Rossi wrote in her email to supporters.
Harrisburg Republicans reacted with mixed degrees of surprise to Rossi’s win over Angela Reese. Some assumed the widow of the last representative would face little resistance to serve out the remainder of her husband’s term.
Special election nods are chosen in a private, not public, process set by political parties, not state law. In the case of Rossi, she was selected by a slate of conferees picked by the Westmoreland and Somerset counties’ Republican parties.
But others weren’t surprised that local GOP party officials snubbed Angela Reese.
One Harrisburg Republican source argued that the win makes sense in a deep red district and in a party that has been increasingly defined by support for Trump, even as, they argued, elected officials’ loyalties are more mixed.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this conferee process became a race over who could be more Trump-like or be a bigger Trump supporter,” the source told the Capital-Star.
Added one of Reese’s closest friends in the House, Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Fulton): “Not much surprises me anymore.”
Widows running and winning their deceased partners’ seat is a semi-common practice in Pennsylvania politics.
At least one sitting representative, Rep. Jeannie McNeil (D-Lehigh), won office this way in a Dec. 2017 special election after her husband, Daniel McNeill, passed away earlier that year.
Rossi will face Democrat Mariah Fisher, a local borough councilwoman, for the seat on May 18. The historically red district hasn’t been represented by a Democrat since the 1970’s.
Stephen Caruso is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.