PoliticsPA: Burn’s state chair election may not be sure thing
By Alex Roarty
UPDATE, 3:10 p.m.: Rooney issued a statement Friday afternoon that appears to quash any thought he and Isenhour will stay on through November.
“Pennsylvania Democratic Party Executive Director Mary Isenhour and I have had a great run,” Rooney said. “We’re proud of our record and the work we have accomplished but both of us are excited to move on to new endeavors.”
His decision leaves Burn facing only Groen and Pascal for the chairmanship, a race in he appears the clear favorite.
In a move that might surprise some, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato’s campaign said Thursday it does not plan to endorse any candidate for state party chairman, including Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Burn.
The decision calls into question whether Burn, who some Democrats had considered a lock to take over the job, is certain to win election to the party’s top position during next weekend’s state committee vote.
Typically, the party’s Democratic nominee for governor chooses who he wants as the party’s chairman at its summer meeting. When Onorato, Allegheny County’s chief executive, won the nomination in May it was widely expected he would pick his longtime ally Burn to fill the role.
But a spokesman for the candidate made clear in an interview Onorato doesn’t plan to play king-maker.
“There’s a process for selecting a chairman, and he supports that process,” said campaign spokesman Brian Herman.
Asked why Onorato wasn’t backing Burn as many had expected, Herman reiterated that the party’s nominee “respects” how state committee selects its chairmen.
Burn faces Montgomery County Chairman Marcel Groen and former Armstrong County state committee member Chuck Pascal, each of whom confirmed to PoliticsPA on Thursday that they are still seeking the chairmanship. He also might face opposition from incumbent Chairman T.J. Rooney, who despite publicly announcing earlier this week he wouldn’t run for a third term is said, according to Democratic sources, to still be receiving pressure from Governor Ed Rendell to retain his job through November.
Rendell, in fact, said at a press conference in the Capitol on Wednesday that he still thought Rooney and Executive Director Mary Isenhour should retain their jobs to avoid changing party leadership a scant six months before an election, particularly one that appears poised to be difficult for Democrats. But he made clear to reporters that despite what he thinks, the decision was solely Onorato’s to make.
The Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s statement that he plans to stay out of the election might open the door for the governor, with six months left in office, to throw his weight around one last time.
The chairman was not available to comment Thursday. If he did run, it would come after only this week announcing, without ambiguity, he would not seek a third term. His re-election might also be complicated by his vociferous support of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter over Democratic challenger Joe Sestak, who eventually trounced the incumbent by 8 points.
Sestak spokesman Jonathan Dworkin said Thursday that the Democratic Senate nominee has “not taken a position” on the battle for chairman.
Asked in an interview about the possibility of Rooney retaining his position, Burn indicated he would not necessarily back down if the incumbent sought a third term.
“This is part of the debate,” said the Allegheny County chairman, who emphasized he was not disappointed by Onorato’s non-endorsement. “What does the committee want to do when we get back together next week?”
Other Democratic leaders were more forceful that Rooney, even if he wanted to, wouldn’t have enough support to stay on through November.
“I am of the opinion that anyone who thinks that T.J. Rooney will continue serving as chair of the party does not have an understanding of state committee and its delegation,” said Jack Hanna, chairman of the party’s southwest caucus. Hanna himself had been mentioned as a possible candidate for the job but said during an interview he was backing Burn instead.
“It is my sense that Jim Burn is the clear favorite to be elected by on June 19th, at the reorganization meeting and rightfully so,” he said. “He’s done his homework and built consensus with the leadership of the state committee members. I predict by the end of the next week he’ll gain support of all the general membership.”
Although it might seem inconceivable from the outside that a sitting governor might not be able to control who is the chairman of his own state party, Rendell has only six months left in office and isn’t universally beloved by Democrats statewide. The governor famously didn’t win the state party’s endorsement in 2002 against now-U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a race he won soundly.
The indication that party officials are willing to fight the governor over the chairman battle might be the biggest indication yet the governor, once the party’s unquestioned leader, is now firmly a lame duck whose power is on the wane.
But even if Rooney does bow out, Burn will still have to battle Groen and Pascal for the nomination.
The Montgomery County chairman Groen, told of Onorato’s comments, took a shot at Burn for telling Democrats he had Rooney’s and the county chief executive’s support for the job.
In addition to Rooney “Jim has also indicated Dan Onorato is behind him, and clearly that’s not correct,” said Groen, who was in Isreal attending a family member’s wedding Thursday.
Burn, despite Onorato’s comments, nonetheless didn’t back down from previous statements that he had the gubernatorial nominee’s private support
“I stand by what I have said,” the Allegheny county chairman said. “Dan and I have had conversations about this in the past.”
Onorato might be trying to let the party sort out for itself who its leader should be, said Burn, who also has reportedly has the backing of powerful Philadelphia Congressman Bob Brady.
“I would suspect they don’t want to appear to try telling the party what to do,” he said.