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Dem Judicial Primary Preview

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

In less than week, the PA Democratic Party will find out how much their endorsement is worth.

Tuesday’s primary for Commonwealth Court pits endorsed candidate Kathryn Boockvar against Barbara Ernsberger, who ran against the party in 2009 and won.

David Wecht is the only Democrat seeking the nomination for Superior Court.

PoliticsPA presents a look at each candidate, their campaign, and the factors that will decide this race.

Kathryn Boockvar

Boockvar, 42, of Bucks County, has been working for over 17 years as a practicing lawyer in areas such as employment, unemployment compensation, discrimination, disability, voting rights, public record issues, and administrative agency issues. She does pro bono work for domestic abuse victims.

She’s been attending events like fundraisers, Jefferson-Jackson Dinners for local Democratic parties, union meetings and labor council events. She’s been moving all around the state and making a special effort to reach out in Western PA. This is her first statewide race.

In addition to the Democratic State Committee, Boockvar boasts endorsements from the SEIU, the PSEA, Pittsburgh Teachers, Scranton Teachers, PA State Troopers Association, Equality PA, Pennsylvania Now, UAW, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Her message: “It’s not just those with access to money or power are the only ones heard, it is to make sure that all people, no matter what their background, have an equal opportunity to be heard and listened to.”

Barbara Ernsberger

Ernsberger, 59, of Allegheny County, has worked as an attorney for 34 years. She focuses on labor issues, including worker’s compensation, unemployment law, and consumer protection. She also serves as a Commissioner with the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Planning.

She’s sought to mix formal party events with public appearances across PA. She recently spoke at the Elk County Dems Dinner, she’s been attending bingo games and firehouse dinners, and handing out her cards at parades and sporting events. While she’s worked the entire state, she is focusing on her home base in western PA.

This is Ernsberger’s second time running without the State Committee endorsement. She boasts support from the United Mine Workers, association of university professors, AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh, the building trades in Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh area firefighters, and the Fort Pitt lodge FOP as well.

Ernsberger was the top vote-getter in the 2009 Democratic primary, but finished last in the general election.

Her message: “If elected I will be a very diligent, and thoughtful judge for the Commonwealth Court. Pennsylvanians will a get a judge that is concerned with the people’s issues that are brought to the Court.”

The factors that matter

Since both candidates have little money to advertise state wide, this race, like the GOP primaries we previewed yesterday, will likely come down to factors of geography, name, local politics, and the work of Democratic committees.

Geography.

This is a clear cut east vs. west battle. Boockvar will have the benefit of eastern PA support without the detriment of “Philadelphia” under her name on the ballot. Ernsberger will enjoy support from all the western PA counties where voters think of Pittsburgh as the nearest big city.

Name.

It’s hard to see much daylight here. Both candidates are woman, and both have Dutch or German sounding-names (Boockvar is actually Ukranian). If one person has an advantage here, it’s probably Ernsberger. Her German sounding name will resonate in south central PA where “bergers” are fairly common, and having run in 2009 she carries a light edge with name ID.

Local politics.

“In many ways Commonwealth Court races are tied to the other races that might be on the primary ballots (e.g. county level races),” says Chris Borick, Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.  “Those races will determine a lot more about turnout than the state court races.  If there is really low turnout you may get more informed voters who might be aware of factors such as records and endorsements.”

Both of the state’s major Democratic strongholds, Philadelphia and Allegheny County, have contested primary elections this year. High turnout in Philly and eastern PA is likely to boost Boockvar, Allegheny and western PA turnout will help Ernsberger.

Party endorsements.

As Ernsberger proved in 2009, the Democratic State Committee endorsement isn’t exactly decisive. She was the top vote-getter that year, while endorsed candidate Dan Bricmont fell to last place.

Over the past 10 years, PA Dems have a dismal 44 percent rate of endorsed candidates winning the nominations in contested primaries where an endorsement is made.

By comparison, the PA GOP state committee has an 88 percent nomination rate.

In part, that’s because in most cases GOP county committees are compelled to comply with the state committee’s endorsement. Dem committees, on the other hand, are generally free to endorse against the state committee. As a result, local activists are less likely to work for candidates who carry a statewide endorsement.

In Beaver County, for example, Democratic Committee bylaws require statewide candidates to pay a $2,500 fee just to be considered for endorsements. Ernsberger paid the fee, Boockvar did not. The Beaver Dems endorsed Ernsberger unanimously.

“In the Democratic primary, it is necessary to speak before the county committees. Many of the committees charges speaking fees of various amounts. The Beaver County Democratic Committee assesses all of the candidates seeking endorsement. However, if you do not win the endorsement, your fee is refunded,” Ernsberger explained. “If you are endorsed, the committee prepares and mails a ballot, puts up your signs, and provides you with a chance to speak at their events. My opponent appeared at the meeting but chose not to participate, even though she was offered the chance to speak and pay later.”

That isn’t stopping the PA Dems from trying. They’ve run a fairly aggressive outreach campaign to their lists and to local counties, and are boosting Boockvar as best they can without paid voter contact.

Corrections: The Beaver County Dems’ fee is $2,500. An earlier version had said $5,000. The story has also been updated to include comments from Mrs. Ernsberger on the Beaver County endorsement. Also, it has been pointed out that Mrs. Boockvar’s name is Ukranian, not Dutch.

2 Responses

  1. In the Democratic primary, it is necessary to speak before the county committees. Many of the committees charges speaking fees of various amounts. The Beaver County Democratic Committee assesses all of the candidates seeking endorsement. However, if you do not win the endorsement, your fee is refunded. If you are endorsed, the commiittee prepares and mails a ballot, puts up your signs, and provides you with a chance to speak at their events. The assessment was only $2,500.00. My opponent appeared at the meeting but chose not to participate, even though she was offered the chance to speak and pay later.

  2. Glad the Democrats have this open system. Otherwise, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would rig everything at the state convention and people in the middle of the state from Scranton to Erie would be stuck with a potentially crappy and unelectable candidate in their area, which could cause some real problems. Politics entails fighting for those endorsements. If candidates are unwilling to do it and visit those counties, you are in the wrong sport.

    Beaver County should be charging. Its not like they charge “Philadelphia” rates or anything.

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