Politically Savvy Friends

Sunday, May 24, 2009

PA Primary Election Aftermath

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Pennsylvania held a primary election on Tuesday, and nobody came. It still counts, of course, but the biggest news was how many people stayed home. This quick post-election edition of my PSF will focus on the results and the set-up for November – but, have no fear, my analysis of the 2010 gubernatorial and senatorial races will be out shortly. Truth be told, nobody cares about 2009 much, but never forget that one election is prelude to another!

By the way, I now tweet – as in twitter. So if you would like quick instant political snippets from me, just go to http://twitter.com/JonDelano and follow me.


Where Were the Voters?

Across the commonwealth, the weather in most areas was picture-perfect for an election. It didn’t matter. Most Democrats and Republicans didn’t bother to vote. After last November’s election, I suppose it’s easy to view a race for statewide judges, county officials, mayors, school directors, and council members as rather ho-hum.

As many of you know, I give lots of talks to organizations around the state and region, and, frankly, the topics of greatest interest lately have been the first 100 days of Barack Obama, the future of Arlen Specter, and the aftermath of Ed Rendell. Nobody seems to care who was elected judge, mayor of Pittsburgh, or district attorney of Philadelphia except the candidates and their fervent supporters.

I don’t have the full statewide figures on voter turn-out yet, but they will not be good. On the Republican side, the “hotly” contested race for Supreme Court drew just over 550,000 votes. That’s about 18% of 3.2 million Republicans. The Democrats did not have a contested race for state Supreme Court, so this measure of turn-out will not be accurate (lots of voters skip uncontested races). Nonetheless, only 530,000 Democrats cast a ballot in this race, about 12% of the state’s 4.4 million Democrats. Both numbers suggest that voter turn-out, statewide, was probably not much better than 20%.

I used to complain about voter turn-out until I realized that every voter who stays home gives my vote more power. Since like most of you, I never miss an election, I look forward to the day when just a few of us will nominate and elect public officials. Just kidding, of course, but it is amazing to me that these socalled “off year” elections seem so unimportant to so many. Who do you think raises Pennsylvania’s ignominious property taxes?


PA Supreme Court Up for Party Grabs

Put bluntly, this year’s election will determine which political party controls the state Supreme Court as we head into the reapportionment of the state’s legislative districts. That’s a subject that always seems to be litigated, and both parties would like to have an edge in any judicial decision that is rendered.

Of course, members of the Court will deny that politics plays any role in their decision-making, and this year’s candidates are likely to eschew that line, at least in public. But behind the scenes, you never know what goes on – and both parties are taking a keen interest in security the seat for their nominee.

The Republican nominee will be Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin of Allegheny County. She just happens to be the sister of the third-ranking GOP senator in the state Senate, Sen. Jane Orie, the majority whip. With 55% of the GOP vote, Orie Melvin, the endorsed candidate for Supreme Court, easily defeated her opponents in the primary, Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto and Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen.

To give them the 4-3 edge on the Supreme Court, the Democrats have picked Superior Court Judge Jack Panella of Northampton County (the Allentown-Bethlehem area). Panella is well-liked and highly regarded by those who know him, but he hardly has name recognition across the state.

What Panella has going for him this November is a 1.2 million Democratic voter registration edge, if the party can get those Democrats out to vote. But never underestimate the Ories! Orie Melvin will work tenaciously, and remind voters that she was the one judge who tried to turn back that infamous pay raise. You know, the big one that state lawmakers later repealed for everyone but the Supreme Court subsequently ruled could not be repealed for judges! Orie Melvin was on the side of the angels in that debate.

I think the Panella v. Orie Melvin race is going to be a lot closer than some Democrats believe. By the way, both candidates are rated “Highly Recommended” by the PA Bar Association.


Winners & Losers in Other Statewide Races

Voters don’t seem to care much about the Superior Court and Commonwealth Court, but these appellate courts are an important judicial appeal for every citizen who believes their local county courts have screwed up. This November, three new judges to Superior Court and two new judges to Commonwealth Court will be elected.

On Tuesday, Democrats picked Allegheny County Judge Robert Colville, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy, and Philadelphia Judge Anne Lazarus. They will face off against three Republicans, Allegheny County Judge Judith Olson, Tioga County attorney Sallie Mundy, and Allegheny County attorney Templeton Smith. With the possible exception of Colville, whose father was a highly popular District Attorney and later judge in Allegheny County, the public knows little about these candidates, although Lazarus benefits from having run statewide for Superior Court two years ago. The PA Bar Association rated all the candidates “Recommended” but gave a “Highly Recommended” to Lazarus and Olson. The Allegheny County Bar Association, which ranks judges and lawyers from the county, gave Colville, McCarthy, Olson, and Smith a “Highly Recommended” rating.

The race for Commonwealth Court could be much more interesting than expected. On Tuesday, the Democrats nominate two Pittsburgh attorneys, Barbara Behrend Ernsberger and Linda Judson, while the Republicans chose former Allegheny County Judge Patty McCullough and Dauphin County attorney Kevin Brobson.

The two best known candidates are Ernsberger and McCullough. Ernsberger was the first woman to head the City of Pittsburgh Democratic Committee and is on the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. She is hard-working and frank in her opinions, unafraid of the political old boys. McCullough was Gov. Rendell’s Republican choice for local court in 2005 but could not win election in Allegheny County. Her husband, Chuck, the former county solicitor under Jim Roddey, is a county councilman at-large, who is now on trial for theft from an elderly client. Among other things, Chuck is accused of directing unauthorized sums of his client’s money to political candidates and to Catholic Charities, where Patty served as executive director. Nobody has ever accused former Judge McCullough of any wrongdoing.

To further complicate matters, the PA Bar Association rated McCullough, Judson, and Brobson as “Recommended” for Commonwealth Court, but said Ernsberger was “Not Recommended” because of their concerns about her temperament. The Allegheny County Bar Association rated both McCullough and Judson as “Not Recommended At This Time” and called Ernsberger “Unqualified.” Remains to be seen how the voters sort through all this come November.


Ravenstahl Wins Big but Not as Big as Some Thought

It’s been like a non-stop three-year election campaign for Luke Ravenstahl, the 29-year old mayor of Pittsburgh. Taking office nearly three years ago after the death of the late Mayor Bob O’Connor, Ravenstahl faced voters twice in 2007 and again this Tuesday. If elected in November, he will – finally – get a four-year term to call his own.

From the beginning of this campaign, Ravenstahl had all the advantages, incumbency and money being chief among them. Nobody ever really thought he would lose the Democratic primary. You have to go back to the 1930s to find an incumbent Pittsburgh mayor losing in his own party. So the question all along has been how big a win would he rack up.

On Tuesday, Ravenstahl got 26,848 votes to Councilman Patrick Dowd’s 12,592 and former police sergeant Carmen Robinson’s 5,916. That’s pretty impressive in my book, a better than two-to-one victory over his nearest competitor. But Ravenstahl fell short of walloping his opponents, at least in the percentage department, where some (including yours truly) felt he could win as much as 65% to 70% of the vote. He ultimately got 59% of the Democratic vote.

Ravenstahl may have been hurt by very low voter turnout. Four years ago, Bob O’Connor won 28,812 votes (more than Luke) against much stronger opponents, Councilman Bill Peduto and now City Controller Michael Lamb plus four others. O’Connor beat both his big challengers by two-to-one (Peduto got 14,344 and Lamb got 13,114). The big difference was that 58,843 Democrats voted in the ’05 primary, compared to just 45,356 in the ’09 primary.

None of this should take away from Ravenstahl’s success. Even if 40% of the Democrats would prefer somebody else, you can’t please everyone, and I think he is well on his way to a long tenure as mayor of Pittsburgh. [During the KDKA-TV debate, Luke said he would serve out his full four-year term, if reelected, and not run for County Executive should Dan Onorato be elected governor – all of which suggests that he wisely knows his political home is in the city, not the county].

Patrick Dowd and Carmen Robinson both made names for themselves in this run. Robinson was feisty, assertive, and didn’t hold back in her attacks on the mayor. In a city where there should be more African American elected officials, Robinson opened some doors for herself, and I suspect we’ll see her on the ballot again sometime.

Dowd, of course, returns to city council. For a man who was written off by most and could scarcely raise a dime against the Ravenstahl financial juggernaut, Dowd made a strong impression for his passion, his energy, his independence, and his unfailing urge to call things exactly as he sees them.

This did not endear him to Ravenstahl, or many in established Democratic circles, including some who might have agreed with his ideas. But it is quintessential Dowd. Whether he can move on politically remains to be seen. No doubt Luke will cast about for a strong council challenger to beat Dowd in 2011.

Patrick’s charges of mayoralty corruption, pay-for-play, clearly got under Luke’s not-yet-hardened political skin. On election night, when he could have assumed the role of gracious winner, Ravenstahl never returned Dowd’s concession phone call and then on local TV accused Dowd of crossing the line and asked for his apology. He won’t get it from Dowd. There’s surprising bad blood here that threatens to last for awhile. You can watch the play-by-play on http://tinyurl.com/pc97ap.

I’ll reserve comment on the November election until later. Both Luke and Squirrel Hill native (and a real Republican) Josh Wander staged a write-in for the Republican nomination, but we don’t know who won that yet. Already, two independents have announced: Kevin Acklin and Franco “Dok” Harris. More about them later, but nobody I know (except maybe Acklin and Harris) thinks Ravenstahl will lose this November.


Mayor Loses Some Allies on City Council

While the mayor won big, Pittsburgh city council took a turn towards greater independence and youth when voters nominated Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle. Rudiak will replace Ravenstahl-stalwart Councilman Jim Motznik, who won a race for district magistrate against friend-turned-foe Michael Diven, in the South Hills council district. Ravenstahl supported Anthony Coghill to replace Motznik, but Rudiak, a 29-year old Carrick native with a Masters degree from CMU’s Heinz College, staged an impressive grassroots campaign to win.

Across town, another Ravenstahl ally, Councilwoman Tonya Payne, went down to defeat to 31-year old Schenley Heights native Daniel Lavelle. Lavelle’s family is well-known and respected in the Hill District for both its real estate and banking work, among the first African American families to break down racial barriers years ago in these key businesses. The Kent State University graduate also has prior government experience, having worked for both former councilman Sala Udin and PA state Rep. Jake Wheatley.

Both Rudiak and Lavelle are not inherently anti-Ravenstahl, even though the mayor did not back them. Both will support the mayor when his actions benefit their neighborhoods, which both believe have gotten short shrift from downtown.

Also renominated on Tuesday were incumbent Councilman Bill Peduto and Councilwoman Theresa Kail Smith. While Peduto works with the mayor when their agendas agree (i.e., certain government reform issues), he has no problem taking on City Hall. Neither do most of the others on council.

As I survey the nine likely members of council come January, Ravenstahl’s most stalwart ally appears to be Councilwoman Darlene Harris from the North Side. All the others – Council President Doug Shields, Councilman Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, Ricky Burgess, Bruce Kraus, Theresa Kail Smith, and newcomers Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle are not automatic Ravenstahl voters on much of anything. The mayor has some fence-mending to do in the years to come.


A Word about the Allegheny County Judges

As an attorney, a one-time member and chair of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee (that evaluates and rates candidates), and now a member of the ACBA’s board of governors, I really do care about the people we elect to the judiciary. Over the years, the public has elected some very high quality judges – and some real duds.

As voters, most of us lack the information to make informed choices. The ACBA ratings are not always perfect either. I remember years ago when Judge Ron Folino was “not recommended at this time,” and he is now considered one of the best on the bench today. He’s not the only example of lawyers screwing up their evaluations.

Lawyers run for judge for lots of reasons, some good and some pecuniary. The current salary ($158,105) is usually more than a lot (not all) of these candidates make practicing law. I also believe we need greater racial and gender diversity on the bench, and I would also argue for diversity of background. I like to see elected and appointed officials from other branches of government run for judge, along with non-traditional lawyers from the non-profit or corporate world, because these individuals have unique real-world experiences that add to the judiciary.

Unfortunately, much of these qualifications are overwhelmed by gimmicky advertising that now seems the preferred way to win a seat on the bench. I suspect 2009 will set a record locally for the amount of money spent by local judicial candidates on TV, billboards, lawn signs, and mailings.

In the end, three candidates won nominations in both parties: Susan Evashavik Dilucente, Phil Ignelzi, and Arnie Klein. Dilucente had the cleverest ads, Ignelzi spent the most money, and Klein (running for his third time at least) was the most perseverant. All three got good ratings from the ACBA and have the potential to be outstanding jurists. For the remaining two seats, it will be state Rep. Don Walko and appointed Judge Joe Williams (running as Democrats) versus attorneys Alex Bicket and Michele Zappala Peck (running as Republicans). Williams and Bicket were both rated “highly recommended” and Walko and Zappala Peck rated as “not recommended at this time.”

One final note. Did anyone notice the strange configuration of the computer ballot in the judicial races? There were two columns, and it was very easy to miss the second column because the first column did not run down to the bottom of the page. Instead, at least three lines were left blank, giving the impression that the ballot was over before it was. I have no doubt that this hurt all the candidates listed in the second column.


Well, that’s enough election analysis for today. Next week, I’ll be back with a focus on 2010. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments and suggestions. Finally, this is Memorial Day Weekend. Please fly the American flag in memory of those men and women who have lost their lives to protect our right to vote and to debate what it all means!

42 comments:

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