Defining issues of 2013 for Pennsylvanians
Privatizing the state liquor control system is one of many initiatives on Gov. Tom Corbett's 2013 agenda.
Incumbent Luke Ravenstahl will run for re-election as mayor. Possible rivals are considering their options.
Joan Orie Melvin is the first state Supreme Court justice to face criminal charges since the 1993 conviction of Rolf Larsen.
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The relatively short ballot of a presidential contest will be followed in 2013 by the longer, locally focused ballot of an odd-numbered year as voters choose mayors, council members, judges and school board members.
In Allegheny County alone, thousands of names will be on various candidate rosters, ranging from high-profile races such as mayor to the nearly invisible contests for precinct judges and inspectors of elections.
But the sharpest focus in this corner of the state will fall on the Pittsburgh mayoral race. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is again defending the office he inherited from the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. His cast of rivals is still unclear. Councilman Bill Peduto, the only challenger to have officially declared his candidacy, is giving up his council seat to take on the mayor with whom he has frequently jousted. City Controller Michael Lamb says he will announce his bid for the office in the coming weeks. Auditor General Jack Wagner remains publicly undecided on whether he will embark on his second bid for the corner office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building. And there is still plenty of time for more contenders to emerge.
Adhering to the message discipline he has demonstrated for years in discussing the contest, Mr. Wagner said Friday that he is still interested in the race but won't make up his mind until after he leaves his Harrisburg post in mid-January. Mr. Wagner also said he cannot rule out the possibility that he could run as an independent in the general election. That's the route former Mayor Dick Caliguiri took in his 1977 victory over Tom Foerster, who was running with the Democratic endorsement.
Largely in reaction to that race, the Legislature changed the law to make it more difficult for a major party candidate to skip his or her primary to pursue a similar run. If Mr. Wagner were to follow the independent route -- and he emphasizes that his focus remains on the Democratic primary -- he would have to drop his Democratic Party voter registration by April 22, the last day to register before the May 21 primary. He or any other independent would have until Aug. 1 to file nomination papers to appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
He would have to collect at least 895 signatures to qualify for the ballot -- a number derived from 2 percent of the vote total of the last citywide election winner.
There is ample speculation that the field of challengers could shrink as some contenders bow to the calculation that multiple candidacies could dilute whatever pool of opposition exists to the mayor. But Mr. Wagner countered that conventional wisdom with the suggestion that the potential field could actually grow before the March deadline for primary nominating petitions.
Roughly half of the state's municipal council seats are at stake this year. In Pittsburgh that means the even-numbered districts. In three of them, incumbents will defend their seats -- Theresa Kail-Smith in the West End's 2nd District; Natalia Rudiak in the 4th District, which covers South Hills communities such as Beechview and Carrick; and Daniel Lavelle in the Hill District. Mr. Peduto's decision to concentrate on the mayor's race has opened a so-far civil competition for his East End seat in the 8th District.
Mr. Peduto's chief of staff, Dan Gilman, hopes to follow the route of his boss, who had been the chief aide to his predecessor, former Councilman Dan Cohen. The Democratic chairs of two of the district's wards are also in the race -- Jeanne Clark, the 7th Ward chair, and Sam Hens-Greco of Squirrel Hill's 14th Ward.
There's still plenty of time for the cast of contenders, and the tone, of this contest to change, but initially it has presented a contrast from the rancorous character so widely criticized in contemporary politics. This trio knows one another well, and the early rhetoric suggests an unlikely mutual admiration society with all of the candidates praising their rivals.
Challengers to the three incumbents have yet to emerge publicly, but there is speculation that allies of Mr. Ravenstahl may unite behind an opponent to Ms. Rudiak, who won her seat in 2009.
Possibly the chief issue facing the mayor and council this year is the proposal that the city's budget should be freed from the state oversight imposed by the Act 47 legislation for financially distressed municipalities. Arguing that it would lift a stigma from the city, Mr. Ravenstahl favors the lifting of the oversight, which would have to be approved by the state secretary of community and economic development. Critics, including Mr. Peduto, argue that the city still needs the fiscal discipline imposed by Act 47 status.
Money and endorsements
For the mayoral candidates and, to a lesser extent, for the council contenders, one early demonstration of strength will come at the end of January when they disclose their fundraising totals. Another preliminary competition will come later in the spring when the Democratic Party committee members vote for their endorsements for the primary nominations, which have traditionally been tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic city.
Officially, the endorsements bind the party members to the winners, but in reality, there is no effective penalty for Democratic officials who choose to flout the partisan recommendation. In recent years, council contenders have routinely won nominations over endorsed candidates. In the last council elections, in 2011, for example, council members Darlene Harris, Patrick Dowd and Ricky Burgess all won nominations over challengers running with the endorsement.
The party's decisions carry more weight in the lower-profile races for judge, where few voters have much familiarity with the candidates. This year, four spots are expected to be open on the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench. Between now and the March vote, the contenders for those seats will be crisscrossing the county, hitting every ward and township meeting possible in hopes of winning the party backing.
At this point, 2013 looks like a particularly light year for appellate court contests. There's just one current vacancy among the three courts -- a seat on Superior Court, although two Superior Court judges and two Supreme Court justices face yes-no retention elections. Another Supreme Court vacancy could arise, however, depending on the outcome of the trial of Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in late January on the charges that Ms. Melvin, who has been suspended, used public employees and resources in her election campaign.
Ms. Melvin is the first Pennsylvania justice to face criminal charges since the 1994 conviction of former Justice Rolf Larsen on charges that he conspired to obtain prescription drugs fraudulently. Ms. Melvin's sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, was convicted in March of separate charges, similar to those Ms. Melvin now faces.
The governor's agenda
Aside from the appellate courts, it's an off year for elections for Harrisburg offices. Neither Gov. Tom Corbett nor the Legislature is facing election, although several challengers from both major parties are already circling Mr. Corbett in anticipation of his 2014 re-election contest.
Entering the second half of the term he won in the 2010 GOP tidal wave, Mr. Corbett has promised progress this year on the state pension system and funding transportation -- two seemingly intractable issues that have frustrated previous administrations and legislatures. But while voicing his resolve, Mr. Corbett has been spare with details on how those big-ticket items can be handled.
On transportation, in particular, Mr. Corbett faces the hurdle of coming up with substantial new revenue while finessing the no-tax-increase pledge he made to GOP activist Grover Norquist. Earlier in his first term, he signed an "impact fee," for shale gas drillers that passed muster with his party's fiscal purists. Roads, bridges and transit agencies such as the Allegheny County Port Authority are dependent on his ability to work with the Legislature to address the widely acknowledged funding shortfall for the state's transportation infrastructure and transit agencies.
Mr. Corbett has also said he hopes to spur movement on the perennially controversial debate on privatizing the state's liquor control system.
After the 2012 elections, the Republican administration still enjoys the fact that both chambers of the Legislature are in Republican hands. But Mr. Corbett now faces the potential headaches that may result from two newly elected Democrats, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
First Published December 30, 2012 12:00 am