There are campaigns and then there are fights. The contest to fill the vacant seat in the state Senate’s 37th District is the latter.
Both the Democrat, Heather Arnet of Mt. Lebanon, and the Republican, Guy Reschenthaler of Jefferson Hills, kicked off their campaigns with hard-hitting, somewhat misleading ads, which is unfortunate because there are clear enough contrasts between these two without engaging in hyperbole. The winner will fill the final year of the four-year term of Matt Smith, the Democrat who resigned in June to become president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.
Denise Ranalli Russell, 48, is a barber from Brighton Heights, a Democratic committeewoman and the victor in her party’s primary over lawyer Dan Connolly, who received the Post-Gazette endorsement in the spring. During an interview in the spring, she said county government has become too focused on “big business,” and she wants to change that.
Her opponent is not a Republican, since the party did not offer a nominee, but Khalid Raheem, 62, who is on the ballot as a New Afrikan Independence candidate. Mr. Raheem of Manchester is a community organizer for the Hill District Consensus Group and a veteran activist with degrees from Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh.
Council District 11 was represented by Barbara Daly Danko until her death in May. Beginning a four-year term in that job in January will be Democrat Paul Klein of Squirrel Hill, an assistant professor at Duquesne University. Nominated by his party’s committee members, Mr. Klein is unopposed since the Republicans offered no candidate.
Oddly enough, voters in that district do have a choice in a special election to fill the seat for two months, between Election Day and the new year. On the ballot are Republican Andy Dlinn, Albert A. Lengyel of the Constitution Party and Democrat Terri Klein (no relation to Paul Klein), who was appointed by council in June to represent the district until the special election. Given the brief duration of the winner’s service, the Post-Gazette has no recommendation in the race.
Todd Elliott Koger of Wilkinsburg is a familiar candidate to local voters. The former law clerk and teacher has run for the state House of Representatives at least four times, plus mayor and school board in his borough. This time he’s going all out and is on the ballot as an independent for three offices: against Democrat Rich Fitzgerald for county executive, against Republican Sam DeMarco and Democrat John DeFazio for one of two at-large council seats and, finally, against Democrat DeWitt Walton in county council District 10.
The election of a justice to sit on the state Supreme Court is one of the most important decisions a voter can make. This year, Pennsylvanians get to choose three on Nov. 3.
The unprecedented number of vacancies, caused by the retirement of Chief Justice Ronald Castille and the resignations of Joan Orie Melvin and Seamus McCaffery for misconduct, means that the makeup of the state’s highest court will be dramatically altered when the seven-member panel begins its new session in February. Its decisions, which set precedent on matters ranging from child custody to the death penalty, affect every Pennsylvanian and will do so for decades.
Earlier this year, 12 candidates were in the race; the May primary winnowed the field to three Democrats and three Republicans plus an independent who filed in July. Fortunately for the voters, three are clearly the best qualified to help rebuild the reputation of the nation’s oldest appellate court. They are Republican Judith F. Olson and Democrats Christine L. Donohue and David N. Wecht.
The only council member with an opponent is Democrat Darlene Harris, 62, of the North Side, who is council’s longest-serving member. Her opponent, Dave Schuilenburg, 42, of Summer Hill, has become a perennial candidate, with a resume of unsuccessful races for council in 2006 and 2007, state House in 2012 and city school board in 2013. He is running as an independent.
North Side voters in council District 1 have repeatedly affirmed their choice of Mrs. Harris, a fiscal conservative who has served ably since 2006. Before joining council, she was an active community member and school director. She was president of council for four years, created the city’s free spay and neuter program and was instrumental in working out the agreement to direct parking tax revenue toward the city’s pension fund to prevent a state takeover.
The race for school board in District 8 was more competitive in the primary, following incumbent Mark Brentley’s decision not to run again to represent Downtown, the Lower Hill District, the Bluff, Uptown, Beltzhoover, Allentown, Manchester and parts of the North Side and South Side Flats.
Newcomer Kevin L. Carter, 26, of Manchester is founder and CEO of the Adonai Center for Black Males, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youths move from high school to college or trade schools and then on to the workplace. He captured the Democratic nomination, beating out two other candidates. One of them, retired school teacher and administrator Rosemary Moriarty, 64, of the Central North Side, won the GOP nomination but is not actively campaigning.
Mr. Carter’s promise to work cooperatively with his colleagues is a welcome change from the board member he would replace.
In the May primary election, one candidate for state Superior Court had the Pennsylvania Bar Association rating of highly recommended, but voters didn’t choose Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville for the Democratic nomination. That went to Philadelphia County Judge Alice Beck Dubow, who now faces Republican Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano.
During his interview with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Giordano, in discussing a handful of his cases that had been overturned on appeal, said he doesn’t like to see an appellate court overturn a jury verdict. That raised a question of whether he would be predisposed to fairly evaluate such claims.
More problematic, though, is Ms. Dubow’s judicial philosophy. Where Mr. Giordano clearly promises “I will never, ever legislate from the bench,” Ms. Dubow said in an interview with the Pennsylvania Cable Network that, though she respects the legislators and the “framework that they set for the laws” and legal precedent, “I do believe that our society changes over time and I think the courts have to adapt to that and have to take that into consideration in their decisions.” That sounds like legislating from the bench, a practice that all judges should avoid.
This fall Allegheny County voters won’t have the same daunting task they did in the spring primary — winnowing a list of eight candidates for Common Pleas Court to a handful of nominees. When people go to the polls on Nov. 3, their charge will be to elect three judges from a field of four.
While the task may be easier, it will still require careful choosing.
With the courts and those who run them a mystery to many voters, it can be tempting to sit out judicial elections. But this race is important: Allegheny County Common Pleas Court is the level of justice closest to the public. Its judges handle the full range of civil and criminal cases. They also deal with divorces, child custody disputes, adoptions, abuse claims and estate battles.
We found these three candidates had the temperament, broad-gauged experience and legal depth that better prepared them for the court.
Candidates seeking to become judges on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court face a question that never pops up for those running for president, mayor or council: What’s the job exactly?
Potential judges for the court spend a lot of time answering that Commonwealth is one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state, between the 67 county benches and the state Supreme Court. Commonwealth Court handles disputes regarding state commissions, agencies and administrative offices, including school districts. Other civil matters and all criminal case appeals go through Superior Court.
Both Democrat Michael Wojcik of Fox Chapel, 51, and Republican Paul Lalley of Upper St. Clair, 45, understand the function of Commonwealth Court very well, are adept at explaining it and are well prepared for the 10-year term they seek.
During his interview with Post-Gazette editors, Mr. Lalley said he learned how to write sound legal opinions while working as a clerk to then state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman for four years ending in 2002. The bar association said “his writing skills are held in high regard, particularly his ability to clearly explain complex legal issues.”
That is the crux of what Commonwealth Court does, and Mr. Lalley’s enthusiasm for the law is apparent and contagious.
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