Pa. Democrats eye new endorsement process for judicial races
January 5, 2017 12:00 AM
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With seven statewide judicial races on this year’s ballot, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party is trying to shake up its endorsement process — and some party stalwarts fear he’s making a rush to judgment.
“We haven’t tried this before,” said party Chairman Marcel Groen. “It’s difficult for some people to accept.”
In February, a few hundred state committee members will gather in Harrisburg to endorse candidates for Pennsylvania’s Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts in the May primary. Voters often ignore those recommendations, but an endorsement can help distinguish a candidate, especially in low-octane judicial races where contrasts are hard to find.
But committee people struggle with judicial races too. The candidates are often indifferent campaigners and ethics rules limit the promises they can make. Mr. Groen said he hopes to inform the party’s choice by convening a Judicial Review Committee within the next two weeks.
“We’ll be interviewing and getting resumes from the candidates, and trying to make recommendations to the body as a whole,” said Mr. Groen, who used a similar approach as the former chair of Montgomery County Democrats. The goal, he said, is to identify “candidates who not only have good legal judgment, but who can run a good campaign.”
The 20-member committee is tentatively set to meet in Harrisburg Jan. 14, though neither a precise time nor location has been set. The process itself has yet to be determined: Mr. Groen said he wasn’t sure how long it would take.
While Mr. Groen selected the committee’s members, he said, “This isn’t an insider’s game.” Members include representatives from eight regional party caucuses, constituent groups such as ethnic minorities and organized labor, as well as lawyers.
Critics note that even if the party regulars reject the recommendations, the party’s choice could be limited if poorly-reviewed candidates drop out. And “doing endorsements is the state committee’s prime directive,” said Jim Burn, a Groen rival who preceded him as party chair. “If they perceive their power is being diluted, they will push back hard.”
Mr. Burn also noted that Hillary Clinton and Senate candidate Katie McGinty were backed by many party elders during the primary, but lost in November.
“The national and state party took hits because of the perception that they are a firewall for insiders,” he said. “This will do nothing to dissuade people from thinking that.”
Chuck Pascal, an Armstrong County Democrat who Mr. Groen picked for the review body, said he heard such gripes “immediately” after Mr. Groen broached the idea last fall. “I think it’s based, understandably, on uncertainty. It’s a departure from what we normally do, and it’s unclear how it will work.”
“The way we do it now, people are making decisions without much knowledge,” said Mr. Groen. “This will give the committee more say.”
Democrats swept five statewide judicial races in 2015, but “that was an unusual year,” said Mr. Groen. The three Democratic Supreme Court candidates included a fundraising powerhouse, Philadelphia’s Kevin Dougherty, and Allegheny County’s David Wecht, who boasts a famous last name.
“Usually you don’t have candidates with those resources,” said Mr. Groen, who noted that Republicans hold a majority of the 15-member Superior Court and dominate Commonwealth Court by a 7-2 margin. “I don’t think you can say our current process is working.”
Since the board is advisory, Mr. Groen didn’t need a vote or other steps to ratify it. But some say a more formal process might have eased doubts.
“Marcel has bent over backwards to tell us it’s not binding, and that’s important,” said Nancy Patton-Mills, who chairs Allegheny County Democrats. “But I think people need a little more time.”
Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.
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