A Tale of Two Races
Previewing the May 15 primaries
Two changes regarding two political positions have made for two interesting races in Erie, Pennsylvania. A new sense of place perpetuates one, the inevitability of a new face the other.
At the federal level, voters have something new to consider regarding PA-5-no-more and PA-3-soon-to-be-PA-16 because of territorial shifts. At the state level, those casting ballots for the 2nd Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives won't be able to re-install the man who's occupied that seat for the last 16 years.
News for both broke around the same time.
On Monday, Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court declared the state's voting map unconstitutional, unfairly favoring Republicans. That decision came down after the League of Women Voters sued the Commonwealth in June 2017 because the voting lines, last redrawn in 2011 following the 2010 Census, "[prevented] voters affiliated with the minority party from electing candidates of their choice," according to the petition filed by the League of Women Voters last year.
While the new lines announced Feb. 19 still favor Republicans, according to the Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index, the new map does give Democratic voters a fairer shot at electing someone from their party. The new map directly affects Erie County as well.
Prior, both Mike Kelly and Glenn Thompson represented Erie County in the House of Representatives — Kelly in the western half (PA-3), Thompson in the eastern (PA-5). Now, Erie County has been made whole with Kelly — or one of three Democrats vying to oust him — representing the region come 2019.
One week following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's mandate to make Erie whole, State Representative Flo Fabrizio announced he would not be seeking a ninth term in the 2nd District. The 73-year old, who had been serving in that role since 2002 after a 20-year tenure as Erie County clerk, had shared the news with the Erie community in April 2017 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite over the course of the last year maintaining his full congressional schedule while receiving treatment, he concluded he did not want to seek re-election.
The clout and might of Fabrizio shouldn't go unrecognized. He's the elder statesman of the Erie Delegation and during any trip to Harrisburg seeing him on the House Floor and throughout Harrisburg, it's easy to recognize the political capital he's built. While building bridges with other Reps and keeping open lines with the executive branch and beyond to better serve the nearly 13 million residents calling the Keystone State their home, he wears Erie as a proud badge. While the northwest corner of the state may be the region geographically the farthest from its capital, Fabrizio's presence reminds everyone that Erie will be heard in Harrisburg.
While voters may get a new voice representing them in the House in Washington — if one of three Democrats vying to emerge from the primaries bests twice-elected Butler, Pennsylvania native Mike Kelly in the general election — Erie will have a new voice in the State House.
The lead-up to the former race has been relatively quiet. The latter, no so much (more on that in a bit).
Three Democrats — Erie lawyer Ron DiNicola, Farrell physician Robert Multari, and Butler lawyer Chris Rieger — want to earn your vote and thusly the opportunity to challenge Kelly come November.
The biggest (read: virtually only) news to break thus far (as of the filing time of this story) is DiNicola's fundraising edge. Federal Election Commission filings revealed that DiNicola's contributions outpace Multari and Rieger $208,838 to $29,650 and $21,636, respectively.
Both DiNicola and Multari have significantly self-funded their campaigns, DiNicola contributing 67 percent and Multari 99.5 percent.
Even collectively all three fall well short of Kelly's $1.9 million — which shouldn't come as a surprise given the seven-year incumbent's connection to the GOP machine.
But whoever emerges the morning after May 16 after all of the ballots have been counted will need — and likely will receive — strong backing and support from the Democratic National Committee in hopes of turning PA-16 from potentially swingable to a fully swung seat in the 2018 midterms.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. But if you haven't been taking up residence under a rock, you likely knew that.
Just two years later, Erie lost its representative (Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, who since has won back-to-back bids to serve as Erie County Executive) for PA-3 in the 2010 midterm elections. But if you've been in Erie and haven't been taking up residence under a rock, you likely knew that, too.
But it's important to remember this given that Democrats, who haven't held a majority in the House since 2011, will be looking to gain control of the 116th Congress by claiming 24 seats this year. As of April 11, more than 40 House Republicans have announced they'll retire or run for another seat or won't seek re-election. On top of that, victories in special elections, like Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore for Senate representation in Alabama and Democrat Conor Lamb over Republican Rick Saccone for PA House 12, suggest that like the midterms of 2010 during Obama's first term, the 2018 midterms will be reactionary, swinging the pendulum from the right to the left.
DiNicola isn't a stranger to this race in particular. He came within just two percentage points of Republican Phil English in 1996 for a bid to represent then PA-3.
Rieger has more recent campaign experience, but that also ended in a loss. In 2016, Rieger ran unopposed in the PA House 12th District primary, but lost to Republican incumbent Daryl Metcalfe, who notched 68 percent of the vote.
Multari is the self-identified dark horse of the race. In a Facebook post on Friday, April 20, he channeled his inner Ringo Starr, writing: "I'm confident we will win with a little help from my friends." Sixteen hours later, the post had been shared nine times and liked 22.
Trying to draw distinctions from Kelly's brand of politics — which, if one is familiar with Kelly and is familiar with Democrats sticking to core party philosophies, isn't hard to do or to even surmise — the Democrats are emphasizing their willingness to meet in-person with voters and hold public meetings throughout the district.
Kelly, who has favored tele-town hall meetings over in-person meetings, calling them the "easiest and safest way," citing one's ability to enjoy "[sitting] at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a clean restroom nearby," initially rejected the request from Erie students to meet publicly at a town hall to discuss gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting at a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead. The coalition had agreed to meet with Kelly privately.
But on Saturday, April 21, Kelly changed his plans. A spokesman for Kelly told the Erie Times-News that Kelly would meet publicly "as long as [the town hall] is for the students and by the students and is not at all partisan."
Prior, the spokesman for Kelly told Erie Times-News: "A private in-person meeting between the students and the congressman will allow for a much more constructive conversation."
All three of the Democratic candidates had said they would meet publicly with the students, citing the need for broader public dialogue. It's not hard to wonder whether the Dems' willingness to meet affected Kelly's plans. For context: Kelly's last public town hall in Erie was held in August 2015 on veterans' issues.
As we march closer to May 15, excitement will likely build. And one can assume that the campaigns will become more vocal and will look for opportunities to draw distinctions without straying too far from the party's core base. Given DiNicola's direct connection to Erie, it's easy to project him as the top vote-getter in his own backyard. However, Rieger is working to make his presence known, perhaps in an effort not to be seen as another guy from Butler who doesn't travel north of I-80 all that often.
The race for PA House 2nd District, on the other hand, is different from the PA-16 race in two ways: All three candidates are familiar to Erie voters, and it certainly hasn't been a quiet race thus far.
Three Democrats — former Erie County Councilman Jay Breneman, former Erie Mayor Rick Filippi, and Erie City Councilman Bob Merski — want to earn your vote and thusly the opportunity to challenge one of two Republicans — Laban Marsh or Timothy P. Kuzma, both real estate agents — seeking the seat.
This race marks Marsh's first bid for public office. Kuzma unsuccessfully ran a write-in campaign for Erie School Director. Aside from reports (which also mentioned Filippi) that Marsh owes back-taxes on various properties, which he (and Filippi) cited as not uncommon for real estate developers and have individually pledged to pay, things have been quiet on the GOP-face of the coin.
Filippi, despite having been the only candidate to have held office as Erie's mayor, isn't the only candidate with a mayoral connection in the race. Both Merski and Breneman sought the office in 2017, coming in second and third, respectively, to top-vote getter in the primary Joe Schember, who went on to defeat Republican challenger John Persinger, who's since been named CEO of the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.
Breneman has faced two challenges to his bid to become the next PA House Representative serving the 2nd District. And this is where the race starts to get interesting.
First, in March, Democrats Maureen and Daniel Cephas filed the challenge to Breneman's nomination petitions, citing a dearth of valid signatures to qualify him to be on the May 15 ballot. On April 10, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough struck down the challenge and cleared Breneman's petitions as ballot-ready.
Two days later, seven Democrats, all residing in the city of Erie, signed on as petitioners to challenge Breneman's campaign finance reports filed after his unsuccessful bid to become Erie's next mayor. City Councilman Mel Witherspoon, Tina M. Thomas, Marcia A. Tome, Lucille A. Eberlein, Jason Gianoni, Jason Figurski, and Daryn Bailey — represented by Sharon, Pennsylvania-based lawyer Ryan A. Mergl — filed the petition in Erie County Common Pleas Court on the grounds that Breneman failed to report $29,000 in campaign expenses and contributions.
Witherspoon, who has publicly offered his support to his fellow City Councilman Merski, serves of the board of the Greater Erie Economic Development Corporation (GEEDC), which rents office space to GECAC (Greater Erie Community Action Committee). GEEDC lost its propoerty-tax-exempt status after Breneman, during his last days on Council, raised concerns over how County funding was being spent. Witherspoon has also yet to comment on who requested his signature as a petitioner.
Breneman has publicly called out Merski for his involvement in both the challenge to his nomination petitions and his campaign finance reports.
Breneman wrote on Twitter.
Merski responded on Facebook:
"Setting the record straight ≠ mudslinging. Especially when information is public.
Let me be clear. I attacked no one. Nothing I've said is untrue.
Blaming me for issues that have nothing to do with me or my campaign only serves to distract you and does not account for or explain missing political funds or unpaid taxes.
The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve integrity and accountability from their elected officials and candidates. It's hypocrisy to call out others and demand of others what we don't exhibit ourselves."
The back-and-forth between Breneman and Merski on social media platforms can be parsed and picked apart endlessly. Has mud been slung? Did Merski admit to involvement by stating that setting a record straight does not equal mudsling? What games is Breneman referencing?
All of that remains unclear. What is clear is that this news is drawing attention — a lot of attention. Even attention from notable names in the Democratic Party.
Northwest Democratic Caucus Chairman Ian Murray told Jet 24 the claims of the petitioners have "no merit," adding, "They have no place in the public dialogue in terms of this race for this legislative seat."
Murray also weighed in, albeit more informally, on Merski's Facebook post:
"Omg the petition challenge was pure garbage the judge agreed who ever hired that high priced hired gun from Philadelphia should be ashamed of themselves the only people that committed perjury were the idiots that filed the petition challenge. The two individuals that circulated the petitions where Honorable respectful itIt [sic] disgusts me that individuals that I had respect for are acting so petty and childish they should be ashamed of themselves." [sic]
Democrat representing the 3rd District in the Pennsylvania House Ryan Bizzarro, who's come to Merski's defense elsewhere in the same post, responded to Murray:
"Coming from you, the guy who wouldn't have even made it on the ballot without people helping you because you were too damn lazy to get your own signatures and therefore, had random people signing the back of your petitions even though they didn't really circulate them. Give me a break, Ian. Go away. You're an embarrassment to this party, your profession and you're embarrassing yourself. You're doing whatever you can to remain relevant. You've lost the respect and help of those who have stood by you. People have only kept you around because they felt sorry for you. Those days are over. You have no friends here."
It should be noted that both posts have been edited, according to Facebook.
Why? Not the editing, but the back and forth. Why the involvement — at these levels — from party stalwarts?
One may assume — amongst many things — that it's because of both how much this seat and its successor will matter to the region (hearkening back to the departure of Fabrizio, who it should be noted has offered his support to Merski) and how much a victory for his seat means for both Breneman and Merski.
Sure, it matters, too, for Filippi, who, while serving as Erie's mayor, battled state prosecutor allegations of using his position as mayor to broker real estate deals near the then-proposed $80 million lakefront gambling enterprise. Those allegations arose prior to 2005's primary election, and although Filippi was acquitted of all charges facing him, the publicity the case drew may have been a factor in the 2005 election. Regardless, Filippi has remained relatively quiet, politically, aside from authoring an occasional column for the Reader.
In a sense, this is the culmination of the rebuilding and rebranding of Filippi in the political arena.
Breneman and Merski, however, are both fresh off the heels of having lost their 2017 mayoral bids. Both are young, hungry for office, and want to serve the Erie region.
But a loss on top of a loss could be a nail in the political coffin of either candidate, especially if one finishes last in the race. A big loss after a big loss doesn't build confidence in candidates or electors.
So it makes sense why there's close attention to the details — like Breneman's nomination petitions and campaign finance reports of last year. Too, it makes sense that people like Bizzarro and Murray are so vehemently speaking out.
This could be the last run for whoever doesn't emerge victorious in the primary — with plenty of road left ahead to November — Filippi included. The apparent commonality amongst all three Democrats: None want to go quietly into that good night. But along the short road to May 15, whether or not the challenges and conspiracies continue will be telling. What will be more telling is whether the turnout will be higher than that of the mayoral election — a race heralded by many as the most important in Erie's history.
The attraction of PA-16 and the potential midterm flip in November for Democrats and the desire to ensure that their candidate of choice makes it to the next round to go toe-to-toe with Kelly may drive more voters to polls than otherwise expected. And the noise in Erie, Pennsylvania may only get louder from here on out.
Ben Speggen can be reached at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.
This article has been edited on Thursday, April 26. Previously, it stated that GECAC had lost its tax-exempt status, instead of accurately stating that GEEDC has lost its tax exemption. GECAC rents space at West Ninth and Peach streets from GEEDC.