A keen sense of optimism and a healthy supply of shoe leather are necessary when waking up each morning as Republican judicial candidates in Westmoreland County. Harry Smail Jr. and Michele Bononi, Republican hopefuls running for the Court of Common Pleas, are fighting against a lopsided registration disadvantage in hopes of stealing a march from the Democrats and securing both the Republican and Democratic nominations on May 19.
Beating the bushes for support on both party tickets, Smail and Bononi are swimming upstream in their efforts to derail a slew of Democrat candidates in a county where Republicans are outnumbered 55 percent to 35 percent. Although Westmoreland County has become a reliable source of votes for Republicans like Congressman Tim Murphy, Attorney General Tom Corbett, George W. Bush, and John McCain in recent contests, it remains an enigma for Republicans running in county races.
Westmoreland Republicans have been encouraged recently by victories in local elections such as former Senator Bob Regola’s defeat of Allen Kukovich in 2004, current Senator Kim Ward’s win in 2008, Representative Tim Krieger’s triumph over the Democrat machine candidate in 2008 to take the place of retiring Democrat legislator Tom Tangretti, and a number of wins in Penn, Hempfield, and North Huntingdon Township municipal races. Meanwhile, the County Courthouse in Greensburg has eluded Republicans, with Democrats controlling the Board of Commissioners and all county row offices for almost half a century.
Sprawling over 1,036 square miles, Westmoreland is bordered by Allegheny County to its north and west and is encircled by Cambria and Somerset counties to the east, Fayette to its south, Butler, Indiana, and Armstrong to its north, and Washington County to its west. The county contains the ninth most registered voters of all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties, ranking tenth statewide in Republican registration and sixth statewide in Democrat registration.
"Westmoreland County has had a proclivity going back to the 2000 and 2004 Bush races to support the person, not the party," according to Republican Party Chairman George Dunbar. "We have been able to achieve wins in township supervisor and commissioner races in places like Penn Township, Hempfield, and North Huntingdon. The only level we have not succeeded in is at the county level and I hope this year will be different," he said.
The 2009 primary election will prove to be a critical test for the viability of Republican candidates for countywide office with the retirements of Judges Jay Ober and Daniel Ackerman from the Court of Common Pleas. Ober and Ackerman are the only Republicans serving on the bench in Westmoreland, with the remaining eight seats filled by Democrats. Because of the structure of the Common Pleas Court in Westmoreland, the winning candidates in 2009 will be assigned to the Family Court division.
Republicans like Dunbar think that Smail and Bononi could prove to be the right candidates to appeal across the partisan divide. "If we can find candidates voters are comfortable with, they will support them regardless of party registration," says Dunbar. "We on the Republican Committee have stood behind Harry and Michele. If you stack their level of experience against the rest, they clearly stand above the other candidates."
Like an optimistic batter in pursuit of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Bononi and Smail are hoping to make history on Tuesday and are campaigning diligently to capture not only both Republican nominations, but also the two open Democrat nominations as well.
"It is definitely a challenge in that the Democratic Committee—under the leadership of Chairman Dante Bertani— stayed so political during this campaign," said Smail. "Even though we cross-filed on their ballot, we’ve had to put in significantly extra effort to reach out to Democrats in their neighborhoods and in the business community to let them know what I have to offer as a candidate. Although I am a Republican, I have emphasized the conservative principles and demeanor that I want to display and the professionalism that I carry so that the voters of both parties can make an informed choice for Family Court."
Bononi, who sought judgeships in both 1999 and 2003, has worked for years to build relationships with Republican and Democrat voters. "I am emphasizing my credentials as an active member of our community where I have served as a volunteer and leader for many years," commented Bononi. "I have taken my campaign directly to the voters by going door-to-door in our neighborhoods and talking with members of both parties about my qualifications and experience to serve as a judge."
Bononi and Smail are further tested this year by the presence of a diverse slate of Democrat lawyers, all whom have cross-filed to join their Republican counterparts on both party ballots. The rest of the field includes Assistant Public Defender Chris Huffman, Assistant District Attorney Mike Pacek, Sheriff Chris Scherer, attorney Meagan Bilik DeFazio, attorney J. Eric Barchiesi, and attorney J. Russell McGregor, son of a former Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge.
In the closing days of the campaign, Scherer remains the 500 pound gorilla in the room. First elected Westmoreland County Sheriff in 1999, Scherer has won reelection without general election opposition from Republicans in 2003 and 2007, coasting to landslide November victories. While building a Democrat network, Scherer has not faced a Republican opponent in 10 years when he easily dispatched Gary Thistlewaite in the 1999 Sheriff’s race.
Unlike in a low profile Sheriff’s race, Westmoreland County voters are likely to closely scrutinize Scherer’s alarming lack of credentials and experience in a campaign as significant as a judicial race. A nephew of the late Judge Bernie Scherer—a popular Democrat party leader and jurist—Scherer has not practiced law actively since 1999 since going on a leave of absence from the District Attorney’s Office to run for Sheriff prior to the start of the 1999 primary campaign season. Before being elected Sheriff, he practiced law beginning in 1990 in private practice and as an Assistant District Attorney.
A survey of Westmoreland County Bar Association members conducted in conjunction with the Tribune Review concluded that Scherer was supposedly granted the Association’s highest rating.
However, a closer analysis of the survey shows that a whopping 52% of the Association’s members failed to answer the anonymous survey. Survey results published by the Tribune Review on Sunday, May 3 indicated that 23% of respondents gave Scherer a "highly recommended" review, 22% ranked him as "recommended," and 27% rated him as "not recommended." Not reported in the article was that 28%—a number larger than any of the votes he received in the possible categories—failed to provide any ranking of Scherer whatsoever. This means that Scherer’s overall negative rating of either "not recommended" or intentionally unrated stands at 55% by Bar Association members.
Speaking to the qualifications and experience necessary to serve on the Family Court, Dunbar, the Republican Chairman, suggests that "everybody who is voting next Tuesday should study the experience and qualifications of each candidate, which will lead them to see that Harry and Michele are really the most highly qualified."
Contrary to Scherer’s lack of family law experience, Bononi’s background includes practicing family law since 1987, being appointed as a Guardian-Ad Litem for minor children who were abused or found dependent in Children’s Bureau cases, and serving as a judicially-appointed hearing officer since 1996. Smail’s record of experience includes litigating over 1,200 court cases, serving as a probation and parole officer for five years, and managing a law practice that has focused acutely on family law related cases such as divorce, child custody, child support, and visitation and adoption situations.
Perhaps primary election voters of both parties will recognize that Scherer’s lightweight legal resume may not lend itself to being the best choice for a position as important as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, especially given that the two new incoming judges will be sent to the Family Court—an area that both Smail and Bononi are best prepared to handle. If so, Westmoreland County Republicans may be able to include a pair of judgeships in their growing list of victories.
Nathan Shrader is a lifelong resident of Westmoreland County and a 1999 graduate of Norwin High School. He holds a BA from Thiel College and an MS in Political Science from Suffolk University.