A Tale of two Parties (PA-12)
John Murtha’s (D-PA12) sudden passing on February 8th left a vacancy in Pennsylvania politics that, according to State laws, can only be filled by special election. Due to these circumstances, Governor Rendell ordered that there will actually be two elections occurring on May 18th, a special election to fill the Murtha seat from May until a candidate is seated following the November elections, and a primary, which will choose the two candidate that will run for a full 2 year term in the seat in that same November election.
The Democrats conferee delegates chose their candidate march 6th in Delmont, PA when Murtha’s long serving aide, Mark Critz was selected, receiving 46 of the 83 democrat delegate votes. While Critz celebrated, some in the Democrat leadership grumbled. The PA State Democrat Party Chairman, T.J. Rooney, made it clear that the conferee vote was only a recommendation to the party and that the executive committee was the sole decider. The committee would meet and make its final decision sometime soon.
Although she came in 2nd place with only 22 votes, former Republican Auditor General and now Democrat candidate Barbara Hafer (Sen. Arlen Specter is not the only Republican turncoat in PA) complained about the process and argued against Critz, believing that he was unelectable. Hafer’s cries did not fall on deaf ears and shortly after the vote was taken the backroom negotiations began. Rumors swirled all over the state capital of Harrisburg. Many viewed Critz as having too much baggage, the former Republican Hafer was still looked on with skepticism within the Democrat party and Ryan Bucchianeri was far too young and inexperienced to run a serious campaign; rumor began spreading that former Fayette County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. would be handed the nomination to ensure that the Democrats had an electable candidate in the 12th. The backroom mechanisms continued for two days, but finally, after a weekend of tense negotiations, the executive committee decided that Critz’s ability to raise money (he has raised nearly a quarter million dollars in just one month) and connections within his former’s boss’ district led to his eventual nomination. With all the backroom deals completed, Hafer backed out of the race and got in line to support the democrat nominee. Critz will still face Cernic and Bucchianeri in the May primary.
The Republican nomination process was quite different. Devoid of negotiations or deals, Johnstown Businessman Tim Burns easily won the Republican nomination with nearly 2/3 of the conferee’s votes. His message of being a businessman and Washington outsider seemed to resonate with the delegates, especially after seeing the tortured deal-making process that the Democrats went through. Burns’ nomination was immediately ratified with unanimous consent and he was presented to the Republican gathering as their nominee.
The process was not without a small modicum of controversy. The 2008 Republican nominee, outsider Col. William Burns, who ran an independent, anti-Murtha campaign 2 years ago never ingratiated himself with the Republican leadership or the party delegates. That, combined with some questions about his current fundraising techniques, turned soured the conferee voters and the vote went overwhelmingly for Burns. Russell complained that the “the fix was in”, the same claim he had been making for several weeks prior to the conferee. Burns will still face off against Russell in the May primary.
Not surprisingly, the process in Pennsylvania mirrored what we see all too often in Washington DC these days. Democrats relied on negotiations and backroom deals whereby an executive committee decided who the candidate would or would not be; Republicans had a free and open election where the will of the people served to chose their candidate. The PA-12 special election nomination process was clearly a tale of two parties.
Whether or not the PA-12 “Murtha seat” is handed down to the former congressman’s appointed successor, or freed, once again becoming “the people’s seat”, is yet to be decided.