State Party Backs Nigro And Munley Democrats In Phila. And Northeastern Counties Joined Forces. That Put The Two Court Candidates Over The Top.

Posted: March 05, 1995

HARRISBURG — Politics made new bedfellows yesterday as Democrats from Philadelphia and the state's Northeast joined forces to endorse favorite sons Russell Nigro and James Munley for the Supreme Court.

The move took many of the 361 delegates at a raucous meeting of the Democratic State Committee by surprise and left the Pittsburgh region, generally a powerhouse when it comes to judicial elections, without an endorsed candidate.

Some from Philadelphia and the Scranton region said they formed an alliance

because Western Pennsylvania party leaders got greedy, refusing to cut a deal and instead trying to walk away with endorsements for both openings on the state's highest court.

Kate Ford Elliott, currently a state Superior Court judge, had been considered a consensus choice for endorsement earlier in the week - but that was before Pittsburgh-area Democrats refused to team her with Nigro or Munley. They had insisted on also endorsing Pittsburgh Judge John Musmanno.

The endorsement, of course, is not tantamount to winning the May primary. In fact, many Democrats insisted that Elliott, a woman and the only Democrat who has won statewide election before, remains the favorite to win in the spring.

Elliott and Musmanno both indicated they would remain candidates and file nominating petitions by Tuesday's deadline. Others who lost the endorsement but could still officially enter the race are Philadelphia Judges Carolyn Temin and Gene Cohen, Pittsburgh Judge Jeffrey Manning and Westmoreland County Judge Bernard Scherer.

At yesterday's meeting, counties from the Northeast threw their support behind Nigro, a Philadelphia judge who won the nomination in 1993 before losing to Republican Ronald Castille in the general election. The city in return gave its sizeable support to Munley.

Because of his popularity in other parts of the state, Nigro was able to collect 199 votes - enough for endorsement - on the first ballot.

Munley, a Lackawanna County judge, got 150 votes on the first ballot. On the second ballot, with all of Philadelphia's 58 votes, he got 175 votes, still three shy of endorsement. But on the third round of voting, Munley went over the top with 205.

"What sparked the get-together was that we have to begin to reassert our prestige and power west of Harrisburg," said Jonathan Saidel, Philadelphia city controller, about the Philadelphia-Northeast coalition.

One Scranton official, asked when the alliance was formed, said: "When Allegheny County wanted everything." One top Western Pennsylvania official acknowledged that avarice may have been the region's undoing.

While some praised the endorsements, others were unhappy. There were shouts of "No! No! No!" when Democratic Chairman Linda Rhodes suggested that Nigro and Munley make brief speeches after the endorsements, and the speechifying was skipped.

Yesterday's noisy affair was in sharp contrast to that held by Republicans three weeks ago, when Commonwealth Court Judge Sandra Schultz Newman and Scranton Prosecutor Michael Barasse were endorsed for the Supreme Court over a single "no" vote. Those endorsements came after a third candidate, Robert Graci, instead accepted the GOP endorsement for Commonwealth Court.

Democrats yesterday also voted to endorse Allegheny County Judge Jon Pushinsky for Superior Court and Amy Putnam, a Harrisburg lawyer, for Commonwealth Court.

For several reasons, this year's elections are more important than previous judicial contests, which often get little attention and sparse voter turnout.

First, two candidates will be elected to the Supreme Court for the first time in 14 years.

Also, the election represents a potential harbinger for 1996, when there will be a presidential contest plus statewide races for attorney general, auditor general and treasurer.

Some political observers had predicted that the 1993 Supreme Court election of Castille, the first Republican elected to the high court in a dozen years, was a sign of growing GOP strength. Republicans in 1994 captured the governor's office and a second seat in the U.S. Senate.

Victories by Democrats in the judicial races could show a reversal of the GOP trend. But wins by Republicans in races historically dominated by Democrats could be a sign of enduring GOP political strength.

Castille remains the only Republican on the seven-member Supreme Court and only the third elected to the court since Thomas W. Pomeroy Jr. in 1968.

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