Even with their candidate in the governor’s mansion and the promise of a national convention in Philadelphia, this year has had a rocky start for Pennsylvania Democrats.
"We’ve been distracted, there’s no question," Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills told the Tribune-Review. "But as we go forward, I think we’re still a strong party."
Analysts say that from a distance, the party might look formidable as plans take shape for next year’s presidential election. It holds a registration edge of 1 million voters over Republicans and has won every presidential contest in Pennsylvania since 1992.
Gov. Tom Wolf, new to politics, asserted himself days after his Jan. 20 inauguration, firing his predecessor’s director of the Office of Open Records and recalling 28 recent GOP nominations. Though it landed the administration in court and angered the GOP-controlled Senate, Wolf said he did so to gain respect and "protect the public" against politically motivated appointments.
Then the Democratic National Committee last week settled on the City of Brotherly Love for its 2016 national convention, and the Philadelphia host committee said it has raised at least three-quarters of the $85 million it might need for four days of festivities.
But a closer look reveals "there are a lot of problems with the image of the party in the eyes of the voters, especially rank-and-file Democrats," said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College.
Brauer cited former Treasurer Rob McCord’s sudden resignation and intention to plead guilty Tuesday to extorting campaign money during last year’s Democratic primary race for governor.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane in March will attempt to persuade the state Supreme Court to remove a special prosecutor investigating her office for leaking secret documents to a newspaper. The Montgomery County district attorney could weigh whether to charge Kane criminally, as the grand jury recommended.
And in Philadelphia, a federal fraud case is pending against Chaka Fattah Jr., 31, son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. Prosecutors allege the younger Fattah stole hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for city schools, and fraudulently obtained business loans to cover gambling debts and other personal expenses. Fattah, who has pleaded not guilty, has said the government is targeting him because of his father.
Kane and McCord were positioned as leaders for Democrats in Pennsylvania, Brauer said.
"You basically have an empty bench when it comes to statewide elected superstars, which is very problematic on a number of levels," he said, noting the need to fill posts and promote leaders around whom people can rally.
The party’s focus this year is on electing judges statewide and securing local seats, Costa said.
Incidents such as McCord’s admitted shakedown can harm public trust, he said.
It’s an "example where one individual does something inappropriate, and you’re all painted with the same brush," potentially damaging the public’s perception of government officials.
"Those type of things are not party issues," Costa said. "To me, they’re public official issues."
Yet losing trust and credibility can hurt the party brand with loyal voters, said Daren Berringer, a Democratic strategist with 3D Political in Harrisburg.
"It’s something that has to be addressed this year, as the state party heads into the preparations for the 2016 presidential elections," Berringer said.
Even with Wolf at the top of statewide elected offices, Democrats hold only five of Pennsylvania’s 13 congressional seats and 20 of the 50 state Senate seats. The party has a 35-seat disadvantage in the state House, its smallest minority since the 1957-58 session.
In the U.S. Senate, Democrat Bob Casey of Scranton won re-election in 2012. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, has a Democratic challenger — former Rep. Joe Sestak of Philadelphia — for 2016.
But Sestak has a strained relationship with establishment Democrats, analysts said. He refused to quit a 2010 primary contest against the late Arlen Specter when party officials and the White House asked, and he beat Specter.
Even so, some Democratic leaders are optimistic about next year’s races.
"I think we can beat Toomey," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. "We haven’t lost a presidential election in decades, and we are going to continue to build on the local level."
‘DOING THE RIGHT THING’
Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro acknowledged the scandals involving Kane and McCord exposed a problem with two party standouts, but he said, "I think the brand — to the extent there is a brand — is largely defined by the governor, and Wolf has demonstrated he is both ethical and has solid integrity.
"However, I do think it highlights the need for us as a party to showcase the people in office who are governing in an ethical and responsible manner, as well as to elevate candidates who place a premium on ethics, integrity, reform and doing the right thing," Shapiro said.
"That needs to be as important to the discussion of who are candidates as their position on education or taxes or job creation."
Finding honest candidates is a hard lesson, he said: "There is no law to govern bad behavior."
Though some point to redistricting since 2010 for the loss of down-ballot Democratic seats, Shapiro noted, "We have to recruit people of integrity, run solid professional campaigns, and build the next superstars for the party."
The Democratic Party has another undercurrent, Brauer said: a split between its hierarchy and its members that developed during the past two decades.
Even Wolf broke ranks with party establishment by forming his own organization, the Campaign for a Fresh Start.
"The rank-and-file Democrats in this state have always been rabidly independent," Brauer said. "They are moderate, almost conservative, as well as pragmatic, reasonable people."
Having two of the three statewide row officers fall from grace could further drive a wedge between party leaders and average voters, he warned.
"That won’t impact their desire to turn out to vote, but that does not mean they will vote Democrat," Brauer said.
Fitzgerald insists that all political parties have inner squabbles.
"Sure, we’ve had some hits lately," he said, "but we are on track to have a very successful run in this state — a state where all eyes will be focused in November of next year."
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected]. Staff writer Melissa Daniels contributed to this report.