Allegheny County judicial campaigns raise the bar on fundraising
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Battling a federal indictment, the young lawyer and the former Pennsylvania Senate majority leader formed a friendship.
When Edward Zemprelli was acquitted of real estate fraud in April 1991 after a 13-week trial, he gave his attorney, Philip Ignelzi, a bear hug, according to an account in The Pittsburgh Press.
The two men later practiced law together. Their families became close. Together they planned Mr. Ignelzi's run this year for a judgeship in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
And on Feb. 9, Mr. Zemprelli wrote his old buddy's campaign a check for $100,000.
"It's definitely a loan," Mr. Zemprelli said last week from his home in Florida, where he spends much of the year. "It's in writing, and he intends to pay me back, which I'm sure he can ... I made some sacrifices to make sure he got that money out of friendship."
The amount raised eyebrows among some of the other 14 candidates vying for five open spots on the court in Tuesday's primary, as well as among political observers. Mr. Ignelzi, who tossed in $100,000 of his own money, had raised $311,362 for his campaign as of May 8, according to a filing with the state board of elections.
That put him ahead of his competitors, but not by that much. Michelle Zappala Peck reported more than $236,000 and District Judge Carolyn Saldari Bengel topped the $200,000 mark.
"This is one of the most hotly contested primaries I've seen," said Jim Burn, chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party. "I truly believe that it's the competitiveness of the candidates."
And that's why, in Mr. Ignelzi's eyes, the generous loan from Mr. Zemprelli was a necessity.
"I decided that I wanted to seek a seat, and to do that and run a proper campaign, it has to be well-funded," Mr. Ignelzi said. "It's an honor to have a gentleman like Ed Zemprelli supporting me."
As Tuesday's primary approaches, candidates for Common Pleas judgeships are blanketing the airwaves and roadsides with their messages in what could be the most expensive judicial primary in Allegheny County history.
In 2007, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state, the campaign funds of three Common Pleas candidates topped $100,000 on the second Friday before the primary, and four raised that much by the same point in 2005.
This year, eight candidates have reported topping that mark.
Susan Evashavik DiLucente, a district judge, had raised more than $232,000 as of May 8.
Federal judges are appointed and do not run for office. Individual donors can give no more than $2,300 to the campaign funds of candidates seeking election to other federal offices. Plans are in the works for similar limits in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County races.
There are no limits on contributions in state judicial races, so a six-figure donation -- be it a gift or a loan -- is legal. But such a contribution from anyone other than a candidate's relative is rare.
"It would be nice if I could do that, but most of my contributors are modest people," said candidate Michael F. Marmo. "I have to commend Phil ... I'm glad he's been able to do well."
While knocking on doors last week in Bellevue, Mr. Marmo expressed confidence in shoe-leather campaigning. He said he didn't feel he needed what he termed as large amounts of money to compete, though he still reported raising more than $144,000.
Jeffrey K. Eisenberg, who had raised $9,078, is relying on lower-budget methods as well.
"You won't see me on TV," Mr. Eisenberg said.
He said he sought out records to identify and contact frequent voters. He said he's also focused his efforts on city residents, who he reckons are more likely to turn out because of the mayoral primary.
Courting those voters by direct mail and canvassing is more efficient than buying billboard space or broadcast ad time, he said, predicting the vast majority of those audiences will not turn out on primary day.
Yet Mr. Eisenberg said he doesn't expect to win Tuesday, calling his campaign "a learning experience." One lesson: it pays to have good connections in the legal field.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause/Pennsylvania, said it makes sense that judicial candidates seek out attorney friends and colleagues for donations. But those donations can create a back-scratching culture, in which a trial judge later may give an edge to an attorney who gave support during the campaign, he said.
Mr. Kauffman said it is especially important to keep an eye on contributions that come after a judicial election, when a newly elected judge tries to recoup personal campaign loans.
"If somebody pays his debt after his campaign, that's really absolutely no different than putting money right in his pocket," Mr. Kauffman said. "It just takes a side trip to the campaign committee."
Mr. Kauffman said his group is backing legislation, to be introduced in the state House soon, that would regulate judicial races in a manner similar to presidential elections. The bill would cap individual contributions and would set up a framework for candidates to accept public financing and a spending cap.
All state judicial candidates now are barred from personally soliciting money. Rules dictate that contributions must be made through their campaign organizations.
In addition, judicial races generally have an air of civility that distinguishes them -- one Common Pleas candidate mentioned an unwritten rule not to attack the others publicly -- and the candidates in the Common Pleas race have signed pledges not to lie during the campaign.
But that doesn't go far enough for Mr. Kauffman, who said his goal is for judges to be selected on merit rather than elected by popular vote. Allegheny County Republican Party Chairman Jim Roddey also supports merit selection, but he doesn't see it coming any time soon.
"The court system is controlled by the Supreme Court, and [its justices] run for re-election," Mr. Roddey said. "It's sort of like asking the Legislature to cut itself in half."
The current system, Mr. Roddey said, relies on an electorate that often knows little about the candidates. The former county chief executive said voters should base their choices on ratings issued by the county bar association, but instead do so on name recognition.
"They know they're famous, but they don't know why," Mr. Roddey said. "It could have been because [candidates] were indicted."
Mr. Ignelzi, who is among the candidates rated "highly recommended" by the county bar association, is making sure his name is familiar to primary voters. As of May 8, Mr. Ignelzi reported spending more than $210,000 on television and radio air time.
That wouldn't have been possible without the backing of Mr. Zemprelli, who is keeping tabs on the race from Florida and speaks frequently with Mr. Ignelzi by phone.
"The brochure looks good," Mr. Zemprelli said. "I haven't seen the television ad, of course, but they tell me it's good."
Pennsylvania's Primary Election is Tuesday. For candidate information, coverage of individual races, the Early Returns blog and more, go to post-gazette.com/politics/
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 19, 2009)
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge candidate Susan Evashavik DiLucente filed her most recent campaign finance report on time. this story as originally published May 17, 2009 said the Department of State had not yet received the filing. A spokeswoman could not locate the filing on Friday, may 15, 2009 but said on May 18, 2009 that it had been received by the deadline. The candidate had raised more than $232,000 as of May 8.
First Published May 17, 2009 12:00 am