Yet more name confusion for politics in Pa.

This Durante is unrelated to former Montco sheriff.
This Durante is unrelated to former Montco sheriff.
Posted: May 06, 2011

'Durante for Sheriff" signs are now dotting the Montgomery County landscape. There's nothing surprising about that, given that a Durante served as county sheriff for 10 years. But that sheriff, John P. Durante, a man with four decades of law enforcement experience, died Feb. 10, 2010, from a heart attack.

The Durante now running for the job is Robert J. Durante - no relation to John. Robert is running in the Republican primary against Eileen Behr, who has the support of the county GOP committee. Behr has 34 years in law enforcement. She began as a dispatcher at the age of 19 with the Whitemarsh Police Department, and rose through the ranks to be the first female chief in the county. Gov. Corbett recently nominated her to serve out the duration of John P. Durante's term, and this week the state Senate confirmed that nomination.

Having known John P. Durante, I was initially offended at the prospect that someone with the same last name would seek his old job. Immediately I thought of the "real" Bob Casey saga.

Robert P. Casey, the father of current U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, blazed an adventurous political trail across the Keystone State. He was elected to the state Senate in 1962, ran for governor (and lost) in 1966, was elected auditor general in 1968, ran unsuccessfully for governor again in 1970, and retained his auditor general post in 1972.

In 1976, a largely unknown man from Western Pennsylvania named Robert E. Casey ran for state treasurer. As political analysts G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young wrote later, "Spending only $1,000 (a sum not likely to deliver a decent size Philadelphia ward), he coasted to a primary victory and won the general election in the fall. His victory prompted Robert E. to quip: 'I took a chance on a Rolls-Royce and won.' "

In 1978, when Robert P. Casey was running for governor for a third time, 14 Democrats were seeking the party's nomination for lieutenant governor. One of them was a Pittsburgh schoolteacher who sold ice cream part time. His name? Robert P. Casey.

So one Robert P. Casey ran for governor and another one ran for lieutenant governor. What happened? In the primary, the one trying to be governor lost, while the lieutenant governor candidate won. The GOP ticket of Dick Thornburgh and Bill Scranton prevailed in November.

When Casey ran for governor the fourth time in 1986 (successfully), his campaign was called "the Real Bob Casey Committee."

The "real" Sheriff Durante race is even more complicated.

This "new" Durante isn't related to John P., but he earned his law enforcement bona fides working in the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department. Now retired, 58-year-old Robert J. spent 33-plus years as a sheriff's deputy. He has also served as a Norristown councilman and council president.

Robert points out that his family has always pronounced its last name Dur-ANT, while his former boss went with Dur-ANT-ee - a distinction the men apparently joked about during their time in the sheriff's office.

"When John came along, he'd tease me all the time about the way I pronounced my name," Robert told me this week. "And we actually looked into each other's past to see if at some point we were related at all. Of course, we weren't and we determined that."

Some of his political opponents claim he is saying his name differently, as John P. would say it, which he denies.

Indeed, Robert told me that not only has he encountered criticism for seeking to capitalize on his former boss' name recognition, but even for mimicking John P. Durante's old blue-and-white campaign lawn signs.

Robert, running his first countywide race, said he designed his signs after consulting with an Alabama-based graphic-design company. That color scheme, the firm told him, is an attention-grabber, even at night and during inclement weather.

It's also, of course, a common color scheme among GOP candidates, a fact that Robert acknowledged, though he denied that he had sought to reproduce his old boss' signs.

"I wish I would have had one of his old signs so that I would not have mimicked, in any way, shape, or form," Robert insisted during our interview. "And unfortunately, I don't have that. I went with the sign I designed. That's what I went with, and that's the honest-to-God truth."

"There was no thought at all about mimicking John's signs whatsoever," he said.

As for banking on someone else's political capital, Durante was unequivocal in his disavowal:

"Absolutely not. I don't think I have to. ... I'm running on my professional background and my name recognition and my integrity that I've established my whole life."

It all makes for an interesting primary election May 17.

Contact Michael Smerconish


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