Area Democratic senators taking sides in race for veteran Vince Fumo's seat

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HARRISBURG -- Five Democratic state senators from the Pittsburgh area have gotten involved in a Philadelphia senate primary in a big way, contributing a total of $137,500 to one of three Democratic hopefuls in the race.

Why are Sens. Sean Logan, Jay Costa, Barry Stout, Gerald LaValle and Wayne Fontana taking sides in the hotly contested race to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Vince Fumo?

They say it's because they are friends and colleagues of Mr. Fumo, a powerful Democrat from south Philadelphia who will retire from the Senate Nov. 30 after 30 years. He's leaving, at least in part, because he faces trial in September on 139 charges of public corruption filed by federal prosecutors in Philadelphia.

Mr. Logan, D-Monroeville, has donated the most, $50,000; Mr. Stout, of Washington County, and Mr. LaValle, of Beaver County, each gave $30,000; Mr. Costa, of Forest Hills, gave $20,000; and Mr. Fontana, of Brookline, gave $7,500.

The money went to a Philadelphia lawyer, Larry Farnese, 39, who has some family and political ties to Mr. Fumo. He is involved in a tough race against well-known Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty, who is a bitter political foe of Mr. Fumo.

Mr. Farnese works in the Philadelphia office of the Pittsburgh-based law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. Mr. Dougherty is business manager for Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The third candidate is Anne Dicker, a community activist and opponent of slots casinos. Mr. Fumo was a major advocate of the 2004 law that legalized 14 casinos in Pennsylvania.

Dougherty campaign officials say their polling shows Mr. Dougherty with "a double-digit lead'' in the race, yet they aren't happy that Democratic senators from Western Pennsylvania are taking sides in an intra-party battle in Philadelphia.

"It's very sad that Sen. Fumo's last [request] to his colleagues was for campaign money and not for a vote to help working-class families in their districts and across Pennsylvania," said Brian Hickey, a Dougherty spokesman.

Mr. Fumo has been a powerhouse in the Senate almost since his arrival in 1978. For years he was the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and has had much influence in bringing millions of state dollars for a multitude of projects around the state.

"Of course these senators are grateful to him," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

"Think of all the help he gave them over the years as appropriations chairman, shepherding the budget for his caucus and protecting their WAMS," a nickname for Walking Around Money, funding for projects in each senator's district.

But after Mr. Fumo was charged last year with the 139 counts of corruption, he gave up his appropriations post, which is now held by Mr. LaValle.

A Fumo spokesman, Gary Tuma, said Mr. Fumo hasn't endorsed any of the three candidates in the race and "didn't ask [Senate colleagues] to contribute" to Mr. Farnese.

Brian Abernathy, a Farnese spokesman, said, "I am not aware of Sen. Fumo's involvement" in the Senate contest.

But suspicions have grown because Mr. Abernathy used to work for a Philadelphia councilman who is a political ally of Mr. Fumo and because Mr. Farnese's media consultant also worked for Mr. Fumo. In addition, Mr. Farnese's grandfather was a friend of Mr. Fumo, Mr. Abernathy said.

The Pittsburgh-area senators contend their contributions are no big deal, saying they donate to Democratic candidates in every election cycle.

"I've known Larry Farnese for a number of years; he is a friend of mine,'' said Mr. Logan, who's running uncontested for re-election this year.

He added, "I contribute to many Democratic candidates for statewide office and to House and Senate candidates, regardless of where they are in the state. I gave money to [ex-Philadelphia Mayor] John Street in his 2003 re-election campaign. That's what Democrats do -- we help each other. Republicans do it too.''

Some Democratic senators met with Mr. Farnese recently at Mr. Fumo's townhouse in Philadelphia. "Larry dropped by to introduce himself to his future colleagues," said Mr. Abernathy. "John [Dougherty] is trying to make this into a big conspiracy." Mr. Costa said he has met with Mr. Farnese and "he's a good guy."

Mr. Stout said that the Democratic nominee in Mr. Fumo's district "is really important," because the district has been a Democratic stronghold.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 29-21 in the Senate, so it's important to hold onto current Democratic seats, he added.

"I've talked to Larry Farnese several times, and I am impressed," Mr. Stout said. "He is a young attorney active in Philadelphia activities. The Philadelphia media market is expensive, especially when you're running TV ads and doing other things to get your message out."


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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