John Baer: Pennsylvania Democrats in desperate need of some new leaders

Posted: November 08, 2010

AFTER LAST WEEK'S decimation of Democrats, who's left to push the Pennsylvania party, and who are its leaders? Looks to me like slim pickins.

Gov. Ed is leaving, short-term Democrat Arlen Specter lost the primary, House Leader Todd Eachus lost last Tuesday, House Speaker Keith McCall didn't seek re-election, former House Leader Bill DeWeese faces a corruption trial, outgoing Senate Leader Bob Mellow is under federal investigation, and former House Whip Mike Veon and former powerhouse Vincent Fumo are stuck in prison cells.

Plus, state Democrats just lost a U.S. Senate seat, five congressional seats, the governor's office and control of the state House all in one day.

The GOP will drive state policy, reshape legislative districts to its advantage for the next 10 years and control the Attorney General's Office since Gov.-elect Corbett gets to name his successor.

Despite Democrats' 1.2 million registration edge in a state that went blue in the last five presidential elections, Pennsylvania looks bright, bright red.

And there's a larger problem: The departing Rendell, never a fan of the statewide party (it endorsed his '02 primary opponent, now-Sen. Bob Casey), did little to build it, so there's no farm team.

I ask Rendell whom he sees as voices and leaders of his party.

"I don't think we lack for talent and leadership," he says, gamely.

He names vanquished Joe Sestak and Dan Onorato, Mayor Nutter and a handful of lawmakers, including Montco's Mike Gerber and Josh Shapiro.

Rendell's press office later contacts me to say the Guv forgot Sen. Casey, who the Guv thinks would be the party's "No. 1" voice/leader.

I don't blame Ed. Casey is forgettable and mostly in hiding since '08.

But Sestak? Really? He's no party guy. He bucked the party to become a candidate and stressed his independence as a candidate.

Onorato remains Allegheny County executive and can run for a third term next year. But he was crushed, carrying only four of 67 counties and losing his own county. Not sure how that translates into a statewide presence.

Nutter runs for re-election next year, and his hands are full with the city; and Democratic lawmakers, in a deep minority, mostly will be spectators.

(Gerber ran the House Democratic Campaign Committee and got, as President Obama might say, "shellacked." Shapiro co-chaired a touted reform commission a few years back that fell well short of its potential.)

The fact is, Democrats have to wait for a chance to mount a statewide voice because even the next election cycle offers little opportunity.

Casey's seat is up in 2012. He seems a safe bet to retain it, assuming he resurfaces. There's no governor's race until 2014. Row offices are up in 2012. But one is held by incumbent Democratic Treasurer Rob McCord, who'll likely run again and is, I'd add, someone to keep an eye on. No Democrat has won the Attorney General's Office since it became elective in 1980. So it seems only the auditor-general seat offers a chance for new blood. Incumbent Democrat Jack Wagner is term-limited - and where does he go if he can't work out a switch deal with McCord?

(Among Democrats interested in running for auditor general are Philly state Sen. Anthony Williams and Shapiro.)

State Democratic Chairman Jim Burn tells me his party will "rebuild and retool" and points to Casey, Nutter, Philly boss Bob Brady and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl as its leaders. Burn says he and Brady will meet soon to talk about exactly how to go forward.

But the state-party problem is not Philadelphia's. The city delivered 84 percent of its vote to Sestak, 82 percent to Onorato. Its experienced pols, such as U.S. Reps. Allyson Schwartz, Brady or Chaka Fattah, have little to gain by involvement in statewide efforts.

Wait it out? Dems probably haven't heard the last of defeated candidates Bryan Lentz and Patrick Murphy. And McCord and Shapiro strike me as planning ahead.

But short term, the pickins are slim, the outlook grim. And James Carville's 2009 book "40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation" is selling for pennies per copy.

Send e-mail to

For recent columns, go to

comments powered by Disqus