Politically Savvy Friends

Monday, February 4, 2008


Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Next Tuesday, February 5, is Super Duper Tuesday when millions of Americans will go to the polls to pick the Republican and Democratic nominees for president. Unfortunately, millions of others – including those of us in Pennsylvania – will not be part of this “national” primary. And, regrettably again, because of the impact of the earlier caucuses and primaries, those Americans who do get a vote on Tuesday will not get a full selection of candidates. In my view, this is a fundamentally flawed system by which to choose a president.

In an earlier PSF, I reviewed the presidential race as I saw it then. After a brief update, let’s move on to Pennsylvania politics. First, my thanks for so many wonderful comments to my last PSF. I love getting them, and I always treat them as “off-the-record” comments. My apologies if you get some scary automated comment when you hit the “reply” button. I think you can avoid that by initiating a “new” email to me at delano.jon@gmail.com. In any case, don’t be a stranger, especially if you have some new tidbit to share with me or our politically savvy friends. If you feel like commenting publicly, there is a “comment” section on my blog at http://delanosden.blogspot.com/. Just be respectful of all.


Presidential Update:

And then there were two, sort of.

Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. Barring the unexpected, the Democratic nominee for president will either be a woman or an African American. In both cases, Americans will be asked to do something never asked before, at least at this level of a campaign. I opined earlier that I think the gender barrier may actually be tougher to break than the racial barrier, but both candidates ask voters to think beyond our traditional prejudices.

One PSFer suggested that for every white who will never vote for a black, there is a man (and in some cases, a woman) who will never support a woman for president. This year we will have a chance to test these anecdotal political theories. I hope that whatever happens America can look back with pride on the 2008 general election campaign. We shall see.

I was disappointed that John Edwards suspended his campaign so unexpectedly, not because of any personal preference or belief that he would win. Rather, Edwards played an important role in the race by keeping the candidates focused on important issues, especially health care and poverty. I have interviewed both Edwards and his wife Elizabeth on a number of occasions, and I have always been impressed with his sincerity and commitment to his causes. As for Elizabeth, given her family roots in western PA – yes, her dad graduated from Brownsville High School in 1938 – how can I not help but be enamored by her grace and passion.

So far, Edwards has shown no desire to endorse anyone, and I would be surprised if he did. The rumor that he could be either Obama’s or Clinton’s attorney general will drive the corporate and defense attorneys crazy, but it is an intriguing notion. At least we know where he stands on waterboarding!

John McCain versus Mitt Romney. Well, not exactly. There’s also Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. McCain seems to be racking up endorsements after his Florida win and he’s peddling the belief that he is the only Republican who can beat the Democratic nominee. McCain does have an appeal beyond traditional GOP lines, and there’s no doubt in my mind he could win the presidency. [See my last PSF posted on my blog at http://delanosden.blogspot.com/ for my view that the Republicans can win the White House in 2008]. But McCain’s strengths outside his party are weaknesses within his party, and both Romney and Huckabee have moved to exploit them. Romney is hurt by Huckabee’s presence on so many ballots, as he does give true conservatives another candidate to support. But the real question is whether this has become a two-person race such that Republicans who dislike McCain’s stands on immigration, taxes, campaign reform, etc., etc. opt for Romney as the only credible alternative. We shall see.

I was taken to task for leaving Ron Paul out of my last PSF. My apologies to the Paul fans, and there are a lot of them. I have not met Ron Paul, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the fervor with which he articulates his views, especially his belief that American foreign policy in Iraq contravenes traditional conservative values. While Paul has not broken into the top tier of candidates – his supporters blame the mainstream media for that – he has consistently attracted from 3 percent (Florida) to 14 percent (Nevada) of the vote. Moreover, his ability to raise money on-line has been awesome. He’s not a factor in this election, but he does give anti-war Republicans a candidate to support.

A Brokered Convention:

Despite all the media play about a brokered convention in Denver and Minneapolis, it now appears much less likely of that occurring. Still, if it’s a very close delegate race between Obama and Clinton and/or McCain and Romney, February 5 will not settle things. That pushes decision-making into the later primaries. Kansas, Louisiana, and Washington votes on February 9, with Maryland and Virginia on February 12. Hawaii and Wisconsin vote later in the month, with March 4 another big delegate day with contests in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Because the state Senate blocked a bill to move the Pennsylvania primary to February 12, this commonwealth will almost certainly not be part of the primary sweepstakes. But, if no one has a majority of the delegates after March 4, Pennsylvania on April 22 would be the kingmaker – or queenmaker! I know we’re ready to decide, if the other states can’t make it final!


Impacting the Delegate Battle:

Even though PA is not yet a player in the delegate sweepstakes, that hasn’t stopped the state’s most senior politician from making an endorsement. Gov. Ed Rendell told me a few weeks ago that he was not planning to endorse any candidate for president until closer to the April 22 primary. That changed when, sources tell me, the Clintons asked Rendell to endorse Hillary before the South Carolina primary. There was never any real surprise who Rendell would back. He has been close to both Clintons for years, serving as chair of the Democratic National Committee during the presidency of President Clinton. The state’s other senior Democrat, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, has not endorsed either Obama or Clinton, telling me that both of them supported his campaign in 2006 to unseat former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. One former U.S. senator from PA, Harris Wofford, told me last August that he was backing Obama because he found Obama to be inspiring like John F. Kennedy in whose White House Wofford once worked many years ago.

Speaking of Santorum, the state’s most prominent conservative endorsed Romney on Friday, saying true conservatives cannot sit on the sidelines and declaring that Romney “has fought for life, marriage, tax cuts and a stronger national defense. In the coming days, I look forward to working with him as we fight for our party's conservative foundations." McCain has already picked up support from former Gov. Tom Ridge, and just added support from the PA Republican Party chair, Robert Gleason. As far as I know, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has endorsed no one.

Pennsylvania has the fourth largest concentration of Democratic delegates – 188 – and the fifth largest collection of GOP delegates – 74 – but it may well be over before voters in each of the state’s 19 congressional districts pick the delegates pledged to particular candidates.

State Row Offices Up for Grabs:

This spring and fall, Pennsylvanians will also elect 19 members of Congress, 203 members of the PA House of Representatives, 25 members of the state Senate, and three statewide elected officials – Attorney General, Auditor General, and State Treasurer – offices frequently used as a springboard for other more prominent state office like Governor and U.S. Senator.

Attorney General Tom Corbett, a suburban Pittsburgh Republican, is asking voters for another four years as AG. Corbett, who has deep political roots going back to his days as the local campaign chair for George H. W. Bush (for which he was rewarded by being named U.S. Attorney for Western PA), will be difficult for the Democrats to beat, in my view. He has been a very visible AG, focusing on internet child pornography and drug busts. But his greater notoriety will come later this year as he investigates “Bonusgate” among Democratic and Republican legislators in Harrisburg – see below – with charges expected against some prominent leaders.

Democratic Party leaders have endorsed Northampton District Attorney John Morganelli to challenge Corbett, and Morganelli brings 16 years of DA experience to the task. Morganelli has run for this office before, and is well known among law enforcement officials, having served as president of the state’s DA association and on the state’s Crime Commission. Can Morganelli defeat Corbett? Yes, absolutely, if the stars align correctly during this presidential year. But since the office became elective in 1980, the Republicans have won every contest. Morganelli trumpets an internal campaign poll that shows him at 34 percent, Corbett at 37 percent, and a whopping 29 percent undecided. Morganelli believes he can showcase his tough anti-crime record as a DA, and he calls for an “independent counsel” to investigate Bonusgate, saying a Republican politico like Corbett cannot be trusted to investigate Republican legislators.

Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Pittsburgh Democrat, hopes for an easy cruise to reelection in 2008. He just might get it. Wagner, a former Pittsburgh city councilman and state senator, is no stranger to PA politics. He was picked by then State Treasurer Bob Casey to be his running-mate for Lieutenant Governor in 2002. Both Casey and Wagner lost those nomination battles, but Wagner parlayed that into a statewide run for Auditor General, winning big in 2004. A Vietnam veteran often recognized for his work on behalf of veterans, Wagner has used his office to conduct visible state audits that attract local media attention around the state.

Many Republicans had hoped that David Sanko, chief of staff to former Gov. Mark Schweiker and later Rendell’s PEMA (PA Emergency Management) director, would take on Wagner. But Sanko, who had returned home to Bucks County to be that county’s chief operating officer, announced this week that he would not run for public office, citing bad timing for him personally. That leaves Chet Beiler, the Republican chair of Lancaster County, as the only announced challenger. Beiler is a successful businessman who grew up on family farm in Amish country and built a company called Amish Country Gazebos that was featured on an episode of the TV show “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.” Beiler has sought public office before, like Auditor General and State Senate, but it looks like he now has the GOP nomination to himself. He comes from an increasingly important part of the state, but Beiler will need an infusion of cash to become better known in the populace southeastern and southwestern ends of the state.

When former State Treasurer Bob Casey resigned his office last year to take the oath as a U.S. Senator, the governor appointed a state treasurer, Robin Weissmann, who pledged not to seek office in 2008. That gives both parties a chance to win an “open” statewide seat. On the Democratic side, four candidates are vying for the nomination: John Cordisco, the Democratic chair of Bucks County; State Rep. Jennifer Mann, a Lehigh County legislator; Rob McCord, a venture capitalist from Montgomery County; and Dennis Morrison-Wesley, an African American cable TV salesman in Harrisburg who once worked for Merrill Lynch until, he says, he was fired for supporting Casey over Santorum, charges denied by the company.

Arguably, Mann from Allentown is the best known of the bunch, although she is hardly a statewide figure. She is generally regarded as a pro-business centrist Democrat who supports abortion rights, and, as the only woman (so far) in the race she can capitalize on the absence of any woman running statewide in 2008. McCord is the money candidate. The suburban Philly businessman reportedly has the ability, and the desire, to pump more than a million of his own dollars into the campaign. Cordisco, a former Bucks County state legislator, has already had word battles with his fellow Philadelphian, accusing McCord of taking money from those who want to manage monies handled by the Treasurer. McCord says Cordisco voted for legislative pay raises when he was in the state House and is, therefore, unelectable. Absent from the crowded ballot is any candidate from west of the Susquehanna River. Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein has toyed with the idea, but no formal announcement yet from someone who is generally well-known in this region. Another potential candidate with a strong base and lots of money is former Philadelphia mayoral candidate Tom Knox. Stay tuned. This race hasn’t yet jelled.

The Republicans seem to have their candidate for State Treasurer: former Montgomery County commissioner Thomas Jay Ellis. Ellis is a bond attorney, who is now caught up in a politically-charged civil lawsuit involving rival tax collection companies, one of which was hired on a no-bid basis by the Montgomery commissioners to replace the other. While Ellis has not been sued himself, the losing company wants to take his sworn deposition. He has refused, arguing a conflict of interest, but a federal judge appears to think otherwise, especially since Ellis is no longer a commissioner.

State House Could Party Switch:

The Democrats control the State House by just one vote, 102 to 101, and that margin of control could be in great jeopardy this year. [The State Senate is 29 Republican to 21 Democrats, and nobody thinks that will change much in 2008]. Last time I checked, about 24 legislators were retiring this year, including five senators: Gib Armstrong, a Lancaster County Republican; Jerry LaValle, a Beaver County Democrat; Roger Madigan, a Bradford County Republican; Terry Punt, a Franklin County Republican; and Connie Williams, a Montgomery County Democrat. The first four seats are likely to stay in the same party, but the Williams’ seat in suburban Philadelphia could be a real battleground with both parties seeking to field strong candidates.

On the House side, 19 representatives are stepping down, some to run for the state Senate like Sean Ramaley (D/Beaver), Daylin Leach (D/Mongtomery), and Steven Cappelli (R/Lycoming). Democrats think they have a shot at three House seats held by Republicans who are retiring in Bucks (David Steil) and Chester Counties (Arthur Hershey & Carole Rubley), while Republicans think they can retake Leach’s seat and the seat held by Tom Tangretti (D/Westmoreland). After the dust settles on April 22, other seats could be in play as well, including that of the House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D/Greene). Bottom line is that the state House is up for grabs.

The most surprising retirement announcement this last month was that of Lisa Bennington, a 31-year old freshman Democratic legislator from Pittsburgh, who (along with Chelsa Wagner and Deberah Kula) returned women to the House from southwestern PA in 2006. Bennington says she underestimated the wasted time in Harrisburg and, frankly, would just prefer to grow her family law practice. Ironically, the man she beat in the Democratic primary, Frank Pistella, is trying to make a comeback, although lots of other candidates are circulating petitions as well.

By way of comparison, in 2006 some 31 incumbents decided not to seek reelection (compared to 24 this year) and another 24 incumbents were defeated at the polls in the wake of the pay raise controversy. That ushered in 55 new legislators (out of the 253), a better than 20 percent change. Nobody expects that kind of turnover in 2008.

Could “Bonusgate” Alter the Political Equation:

The media is calling it Bonusgate, the use of taxpayer dollars to reward legislative staff for the political work they did on a variety of campaigns in 2006. This, of course, is illegal. While the law back then allowed for bonus dollars to reward legislative work, there is no question that senior legislators could not use these dollars to “thank” staffers for their campaign work. After their successful take-over of the House, House Democratic leaders awarded $1.9 million in bonus money to 717 employees, while the House Republicans gave out $270,000 to 45 staffers. Senate Republicans gave out $180,000 in bonuses to 16 employees, while Senate Democrats gave out $38,000 to 12 staffers.

Did senior House and Senate legislative leaders hand out bonuses to reward staffers for their political work? Nobody knows, but Attorney General Corbett has convened a grand jury to investigate. Corbett says he’s looking at all four caucuses, but some Democrats don’t believe it. They think Corbett will target Democrats to improve his reelection chances and to position himself for a gubernatorial run in 2010. Corbett’s Democratic opponent this year, John Morganelli, says legislative corruption needs to be investigated fully without regard to politics, and he argues that an independent special counsel should be named to conduct such an investigation.

Most of the public attention has been on the House Democrats, who did dole out more than double the cash of their GOP counterparts. House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese has suggested that he was really not in the loop on these bonus awards in 2006. But whether intended or not, that implicitly suggests that it was the work of then second-ranking Democrat, former state Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver County, who was defeated in 2006 and senior staffers. After the public furor broke over the bonuses, DeWeese brought in former Philadelphia assistant DA William Chadwick to review operations, sort through what happened, and cooperate with Corbett and the grand jury on the investigation.

In November, DeWeese fired seven senior Democratic staff people, including Mike Manzo, his chief of staff, and Scott Brubaker, director of staffing and administration, both of whom appear to have been involved in the bonus awards.

Nobody really knows how this will all play out, although speculation is hot in Harrisburg that charges are soon-to-come. For his part, DeWeese says he is running for reelection for a 17th term – and, so far at least, House Democrats have not stripped him of his position as their leader. Republican Greg Hopkins of Greene County, who nearly upended DeWeese in 2006, is running again. Hopkins is a 36-year old assistant football coach for the Los Angeles Avengers, an Arena Football League, where he was star player for a number of years. He was also a football player at Waynesburg Central High School and Slippery Rock University, and got 8,994 votes to DeWeese’s 10,035, the closest race for DeWeese in a long time.

Whether any other Democratic legislators are implicated by Bonusgate remains to be seen. And there is also the possibility that some Republican legislators could be affected as well, if Corbett follows through with his stated intention to let the chips fall where they may. But right now, it’s all just speculation and radio talk show fodder.

Republicans Attempt a Congressional Comeback:

Once upon a time, Melissa Hart was the Republican darling of PA politics. The first GOP woman elected to Congress from the state, Hart always upended her naysayers, winning races when no one expected it. Her GOP colleagues in Washington embraced her, giving her visible leadership positions and coming to her aid when asked. Then in 2006 along came Jason Altmire, a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Bush, anti-war Democrat, who rather suddenly attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from those smelling blood. In the end, Altmire defeated Hart by 8,500 votes out of 254,000 cast. Now Hart wants a rematch, always difficult to do. But history teaches that Melissa Hart is never to be underestimated.

Pennsylvania was a congressional disaster for Republicans in 2006. Dems targeted five incumbent Republicans and defeated four out of five. Hart, who represented parts of six counties north and west of Pittsburgh, was one of them. The other Democratic winners: Patrick Murphy (who won by 1,500 votes) and Joe Sestak (who won by 33,000 votes) in suburban Philadelphia and Chris Carney (who won by 12,000 votes) in northeast/north central PA.

Republicans dream of retaking these seats, although Altmire-Hart is the only rerun of the last show. Murphy has four GOP challengers looking to take him on: Tom Lingenfelter, Jeff Madden, Tom Manion, and Joseph Montone. A former Marine, Manion, who lost a son in Iraq, is a strong supporter of the war and has the support of the congressman Murphy defeated, former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. Sestak has two challengers, Wendell Craig Williams and Joe Breslin. Williams has been endorsed by Delaware County GOP leaders and has an impressive resume as an assistant U.S. attorney and Gulf War veteran. Carney has four opponents right now, including Chris Hackett, David Haire, Dan Meuser, and Paul Swiderski. Insiders tell me Meuser and Hackett are the leading challengers at the moment.

Can these four freshman Democrats be defeated? Of course. But they each start the year with big cash advantages over their prospective challengers and the likelihood that more Democrats will turn out to vote during a presidential election year. But we’ll keep our eyes on these seats throughout the year.

Republicans also hope to defeat another incumbent Democratic congressman. Despite at least a public reticence to say he’s running, Republicans are trying to get Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta to run against U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Barletta has attracted national attention for his strong stand against illegal immigrants. Barletta could give Kanjorski a real race. Stay tuned.

The surprise retirement of U.S. Rep. John Peterson, a Republican from one of the largest geographic districts that stretches across northern PA, gives some Democrats hope they can win an open seat. But don’t count on it. Nonetheless, a lot of candidates in both parties have caught the bug. Among the Republicans, seven candidates are in the running: former Centre County commissioner Chris Exarchos, Elk County coroner Lou Radkowski, State College businessman Matt Shaner, Woodward Township (Lycoming) supervisor Jeff Stroehman, Clarion mayor John Stroup, Centre County Republican chairman G. T. Thompson, and Bigler (Clearfield) financial consultant Derek Walker. On the Democratic side, the candidates include Centre County native, Iraqi War veteran and former news correspondent Bill Cahir, Clearfield County commissioner Mark McCracken, and Lock Haven Mayor Rick Vilello.

Democrats are lining up to take on two Republican incumbents who represent Democratic-leaning districts, but at this stage nobody is predicting any upsets. U.S. Rep. Phil English, an Erie Republican, will face one of four Democrats in his northwestern PA district: Lake Erie Arboretum director Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County councilman Kyle Foust, Erie attorney Tom Myers, and Erie lay minister Mike Waltner. In southwestern PA, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a suburban Pittsburgh Republican, will end up being challenged by Army Reserve Col. Wayne Dudding of Robinson, Mt. Lebanon consultant and former teacher Beth Hafer (daughter of Barbara Hafer), Monroeville businessman Steve O’Donnell, Penn Hills school director Erin Vecchio, and Upper St. Clair insurance executive Brien Wall. As these and other congressional races shape up – after the February 12 deadline for filing nominating petitions – I’ll have much more on these battles.

There is always much more to write about – politics in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh, for example – but let’s bring this PSF to an end until another day. It’s almost time for the Super Bowl, which cannot be as super as it might have been had the Steelers been in it. Once again, if you have any comments (off the record) to share with me, please do get back in touch. Enjoy Super Duper Tuesday!

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