State Rep. Sean Ramaley at yesterday's news conference.
By Bill Toland and Tom Barnes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
State Rep. Sean Ramaley pulled off a couple of magic tricks yesterday afternoon, first vanishing from the race to succeed retiring state Sen. Gerald LaValle, then disappearing from the room where his news conference was being held, slipping out a side door, and referring subsequent questions to his attorney.
He was unable, however, to perform the more challenging handcuff escape. On July 11, Mr. Ramaley -- wearing a frown, a black suit and a set of handcuffs -- was escorted past a news media throng and into the courtroom of Dauphin County District Judge Joseph Solomon for his preliminary arraignment.
Images of the white-collar perp walk appeared on TV and in newspapers across the state.
"It has become clear to me [that] after the orchestrated, politically inspired media event staged a few weeks ago, that this campaign will ultimately be focused not on issues, but on one unflattering photograph," he said yesterday at his attorney's office Downtown. "Though I am innocent of these accusations against me, I believe my continued presence in this state Senate race will be a distraction."
Moments later, he announced his withdrawal from the race, the first tangible political casualty of "Bonusgate," a grand jury investigation into whether state employees, primarily within the House Democratic caucus, were given taxpayer-funded salary bonuses as a reward for campaign work, which is illegal.
Mr. Ramaley, 33, a Democrat from Beaver County, was one of a dozen people charged last month in connection with the bonus scandal, though his attorney, Philip Ignelzi, sought to draw a distinction between Mr. Ramaley and the rest of those charged, among them former House Minority Whip Mike Veon, also of Beaver County.
Mr. Ramaley was not accused of receiving or dispensing the salary bonuses; instead, he was charged with holding a "no-work" job in 2004 in Mr. Veon's office, then using that position and office resources to run for the state House position he now holds, in the 16th District.
The charges "have nothing to do with Bonusgate, they have nothing to do with bribery, corruption, misappropriation," Mr. Ignelzi said.
For his next trick, Mr. Ramaley will try to escape the charges that have been brought against him by state Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican. Mr. Ignelzi said that Mr. Corbett should have delayed the charges, keeping the information from voters until after the election.
"If you look at when these charges came down, there is no reason at all why these charges could not have been deferred [until] after the election, and allow the people to make their choice," Mr. Ignelzi said. "For whatever, they were brought forward before the election."
He said the charges were "politically motivated," and that Mr. Ramaley looked forward to the day that a jury of his peers would judge him "not guilty."
Mr. Ramaley's preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin Oct. 7. If convicted of the felonies, Mr. Ramaley, an attorney, would lose his law license.
Democrats, meanwhile, risk losing a seat in the Senate -- the district has been in the Democrats' column for years, but Mr. Ramaley's troubles could jeopardize that streak. Republicans now control the Senate by a 29-21 margin, so Democrats can't afford to lose any more seats.
They have until Aug. 15 to find a replacement for Mr. Ramaley in the Senate race. The Republican in that race, Elder Vogel Jr., said in a statement:
"From the beginning of this campaign, I have said that we need someone from outside the tired Democratic political machine that supported Mike Veon and hand-picked Sean Ramaley. All that [yesterday's] announcement does is give that same set of back-room political bosses the ability to change the name of their hand-picked candidate, and that's not the kind of change we need."
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist from Harrisburg, said that while the Senate district is "a Democratic seat by voter registration and voting pattern," the Democrats' problems could help the Republican challenger.
"Any time you have a tumult in a district, it gives the opposition an opportunity for a pickup," he said. "But how great an opportunity this is for Republicans remains to be seen. The Republican situation is clearly better now than it was when Sean Ramaley was in the race and was not under indictment."
Chris Lilik, head of the Harrisburg-based Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania and founder of GrassrootsPa.com, a political Web site, thinks Democrats will benefit by finding another candidate who isn't facing criminal charges.
"If you are Elder Vogel, you would rather be running against an indicted Sean Ramaley than against a replacement Democrat," Mr. Lilik said.
Even with the Democrats' problems, it'll be a tough race for Mr. Vogel, because Democrats outnumber the GOP voters in the 47th District by 83,000 to 40,000.
Tim Potts, head of Democracy Rising PA, one of the citizens groups that is trying to make the Legislature more open, said Mr. Ramaley "did the right thing" by leaving the race.
"If he has to defend himself against such serious charges, he wouldn't be able to represent the people in his district with the energy and time they deserve," said Mr. Potts, a former House Democratic staffer.
As to whether it's the Democrats or the Republicans who will benefit from the Ramaley withdrawal, Mr. Potts said that will depend "on who replaces him and how that person is chosen."
"If the county committee chooses someone by a secretive process, one without participation by ordinary Democrats, that creates its own problems," he said.
State Sen. Connie Williams, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said she "appreciates" Mr. Ramaley's decision to withdraw and knows that "this is a difficult time" for him.
"There are some outstanding individuals who have expressed interest in running [for the Senate seat]," she said. "I believe the eventual Democratic nominee will win in November."
Though the Democratic nominee is unclear, Mr. Vogel could face Jay Paisley, a 2006 primary foe of Mike Veon who says he wants to run in the 47th Senate District as an independent.