Bucks race was exception to sleepy primary

Posted: May 23, 2013

The trappings suggested a significant election: big bucks from outside donors, a boast of an endorsement from a former presidential candidate, and some serious party infighting.

But in a sleepy primary marked by dismal turnouts all over the Philadelphia region, the Republican primary for Bucks County prothonotary - the clerk of civil courts - ended up being one of the hottest races around.

When the votes were counted, Pat Bachtle - the county's first female prothonotary, who has held the job since 1994 - had edged out Michelle Christian, a Northampton lawyer.

But not before Christian, to the chagrin of some prominent local Republicans, snagged the county GOP committee's endorsement over Bachtle.

As the primary drew nearer, the party split down the middle. Christian claimed an endorsement from U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the 2008 presidential nominee. Bachtle was backed by State Sen. Chuck McIlhenny (R., Bucks) as well as local Republican leaders such as District Attorney David Heckler. State Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) reportedly donated to Bachtle's race.

Heckler said Wednesday that disputes within the party led to an unusually heated race for a typically unsung position.

Several local Republicans, he said - himself included - believed Christian's endorsement by the county GOP committee was a political move "to replace [Bachtle] with someone who was more closely politically inclined" with the woman who heads that committee, Pat Poprik.

"It was purely a political calculation. That got up a lot of people's noses," Heckler said.

Poprik said the committee simply believed Bachtle would not be running again, so was already screening new candidates when the incumbent announced she was running after all.

"A lot of people thought that we should support a new face. [Christian] had ideas that were new and innovative that people thought were worth giving a try," Poprik said. "It's just a difference of opinion. It's like that old play - Much Ado About Nothing."

Poprik said Christian's loss may have been related to the low turnout - a lament heard around the ring of Philadelphia suburbs, where vote totals in some races were as low as the double digits. In Coatesville, which boasted some of the only contested municipal primaries in the area, the unofficial count said just 369 of 6,747 registered voters actually cast a ballot on Tuesday.

That meant City Council candidates skated to nominations with almost comically low vote totals. Marie Hess, head of the city's civil service commission, beat incumbent Ingrid Jones in the Second Ward Democratic primary by just a dozen votes - 35- 23. But Jones was also running as an at-large council candidate, and her 104 votes in that race were enough to win nomination.

In that same at-large race - with five candidates vying for two Demoocratic nominations - incumbent Joseph Hamrick beat his closest rival by just 17 votes. That, he said, was better than his last primary - which he won by just one vote.

"People that I called, they didn't even realize there was an election," Hamrick said Wednesday. Stationed at a Third Ward precinct for most of Tuesday, he said "polling people were getting bored, waiting for people to get in."

Local officials said voters might have been burned out after an intense 2012 presidential election, and also dissuaded by a lack of contested races.

"Since there was not a number of high-profile campaigns on the ballot, they didn't turn out," said Michele Vaughn, Chester County's Democratic Committee chair.

Still, for candidates who scraped by with just a few dozen votes, it's hard not to feel stymied.

"We're electing four new council members this year - and those four new council members, when they take the office for the coming year, can change the direction of the city," Hamrick said. "People don't realize how important this is."


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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