2011-05-19 / Local & State

Pa. Primary Should Thin Out Field Of Candidates

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Nomination contests for the top executive posts in Philadelphia and Allegheny County in Tuesday’s primary election feature one candidate who recently completed a federal prison term for tax evasion and another who is awaiting trial for theft.

Also Tuesday, Democratic and Republican voters across Pennsylvania will choose nominees for two openings on the state’s intermediate appellate courts and hundreds of county, municipal and school-board offices in a year in which many districts are considering politically unpopular cutbacks in response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed $1 billion reduction in public- school funding.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter’s re-election bid is being challenged in the Democratic primary by T. Milton Street, 72, a one-time state senator and a brother of former Mayor John Street. Milton Street was released from prison last year after serving 26 months for failing to pay income taxes.

Nutter, 53, has raised far more campaign cash – more than $800,000 in the first four months of the year – compared to Street’s reliance on donated services. Nutter is endorsed by both major newspapers in a heavily Democratic city where winning the party’s primary is tantamount to winning the general election.

Vying for the Republican nomination are Karen Brown, a former teacher and ex-Democrat who won the GOP’s endorsement in the primary, and real- estate agent John Featherman.

In Allegheny County, the open county executive’s seat has inspired contests for both the Republican and Democratic nominations. Incumbent Dan Onorato, the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is stepping down at the end of his term.

One of the GOP candidates, Pittsburgh lawyer Chuck McCullough, 56, faces a string of criminal charges stemming from allegations that he stole $200,000 from the estate of an elderly dementia patient he represented. Earlier this month, a county judge agreed to postpone McCullough’s trial from September to mid-November, after the general election.

McCullough, a former county councilman, is opposing the party-backed candidate, D. Raja, 45, a Mount Lebanon businessman.

The Democratic primary pits Rich Fitzgerald, a veteran county councilman who is endorsed by the party, against city Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty.

The low-profile statewide races for one vacant seat each on the Superior and Commonwealth courts are the first in more than a decade that won’t share in the limelight of electoral activity involving the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“If you asked me right now, I couldn’t tell you the names of the candidates,’’ G. Terry Madonna, the pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, confessed less than a week before primary day.

In all but one of the oddnumbered years since 1999, at least one seat on the state’s highest court has been open. The exception was 2005, when voters ousted then-Justice Russell Nigro in a normally routine retention election _ a yes-orno vote on whether a sitting judge should be given another 10-year term. The headline making vote was widely attributed to the backlash over the government pay raises that lawmakers approved earlier that year and later repealed.

There are 15 judges on the Superior Court, which handles most criminal and civil appeals, and nine on the Commonwealth Court, which specializes in cases and appeals involving the state government. The base salary for judges on both courts is currently $178,914.

For the Superior Court, party-backed candidate Vic Stabile, a Harrisburg lawyer, faces competition for the GOP nod from Philadelphia Judge Paula Patrick. Allegheny County Judge David Wecht is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

Both parties’ nominations for Commonwealth Court are contested.

Doylestown lawyer Kathryn Boockvar, who is endorsed by the party, faces opposition in the Democratic primary from Pittsburgh lawyer Barbara Behrend Ernsberger, who won one of two nominations for Commonwealth Court in 2009 but lost in the general election.

New Hope lawyer Anne Covey, the Republicanbacked candidate for Commonwealth Court, is opposed by Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto, who mounted unsuccessful primary campaigns for the state Supreme Court in 2007 and 2009.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that use partisan elections to select judges, and efforts to substitute an appointment process for picking judges for the appellate courts have failed. The other states that elect judges are Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.

All but one of this year’s candidates for the appellate bench received positive ratings from a state bar panel that interviews statewide judicial candidates

Wecht and Panepinto were rated “highly recommended.’’ Patrick, Stabile, Boockvar and Covey received “recommended’’ ratings, and Ernsberger was rated “not recommended’’ because the panel said she did not participate in the evaluation process.

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