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Westmoreland judge tosses Commissioner Gina Cerilli's suit to fill delegate spots

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, 11:45 a.m.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Candidate Gina Cerilli speaks during the County Commissioners debate held at Science Hall on the Westmoreland County Community College Campus on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Westmoreland County Commissioner Candidate Gina Cerilli speaks during the County Commissioners debate held at Science Hall on the Westmoreland County Community College Campus on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

A Westmoreland County judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Commissioner Gina Cerilli against the county's Democratic Committee that sought to bolster her bid to win a congressional nomination.

Cerilli is the lone Democrat from Westmoreland seeking to run in a special election to fill the vacant 18th District seat. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, resigned in October amid a marital scandal. His term runs through early 2019.Cerilli argued that party officials deliberately kept more than 70 committee positions vacant as a means to hinder her effort to win the nomination this month.

In his opinion, Common Pleas Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. ruled that the case is moot, saying the time has passed for Cerilli to challenge the committee's decision to keep positions vacant leading up to the special election.

That ruling was based on legal procedure and did not address the merits of Cerilli's argument, although McCormick noted in his opinion that the county's Democratic Committee chairwoman, Lorraine Petrosky, faced no deadlines to make appointments.

“In other words, to date she has failed to act, but the requirement she act is not limited to any particular time period,” McCormick wrote.

Cerilli said in a statement that she was reviewing her options and is considering an appeal.

“Despite the court's ruling, it is not too late for the chair to do the right thing. As these names were submitted before the governor's writ, the chair can still make proper appointments, in my opinion. The party at the local, state and national level must get away from the unfortunate narrative that the Democratic Party is an insiders club and an organization which pushes others away instead of welcoming them to the table to build a positive future for all of us,” Cerilli said.

Committee members from Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties will convene Nov. 19 to select a candidate for the special election. The district includes about 707,000 people from the four counties.

In addition to Cerilli, California University of Pennsylvania professor and professional counselor Rueben Brock of Cecil Township, former Allegheny Councilman Mike Crossey, former Veterans Affairs officer Pam Iovino, former U.S. Assistant Attorney Conor Lamb and emergency physician Bob Solomon of Oakdale are seeking the Democratic Party's nomination.

Republicans are expected to select their candidate this weekend. Running are state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler of Jefferson Hills, state Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth, state Sen. Kim Ward of Hempfield and state Rep. Jason Ortitay of Bridgeville.

Cerilli has maintained that Petrosky intentionally withheld appointing committee members recommended by Cerilli to bolster her efforts to win the nomination.

Attorney Jim Burn, a former chairman of the Democratic committees for Pennsylvania and Allegheny County, argued that Petrosky had a duty to appoint names Cerilli submitted before Gov. Tom Wolf signed a writ Oct. 23 authorizing the special election.

“Those names were properly submitted,” Burn said.

After learning of the judge's ruling, Burn suggested the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee was promoting a narrative in which party officials favor insiders.

“The insiders would rather lose with people they know rather than win with people they don't,” Burn said. “Commissioner Cerilli is the top Democrat in Westmoreland County. She is the face of the party, whether the old guard likes it or not.”

David Millstein, attorney for the county's Democratic Committee, argued Cerilli's legal challenge was moot because state party rules say no additional names can be added to the committee after the governor sets a special election date.

Millstein said adding names to the committee was solely at Petrosky's discretion.

“The idea that any individual, a county commissioner or not, can submit a list and these names would be appointed is simply incorrect,” Millstein said.

Party officials have insisted they followed local and state bylaws and that Petrosky actually started the process to fill committee posts when Wolf's action to schedule the special election ended that effort. Millstein said nine names submitted by Cerilli had been added to the committee by the deadline.

Still, Cerilli's camp maintains that Petrosky purposefully held up on making appointments.

Dante Bertani, a longtime chairman of the county's Democratic Committee and a member of Cerilli's legal team, said party leadership was deliberately sabotaging Cerilli's campaign.

“In my 26 years as chairman of the party, I never turned anyone away. That's what this lady is doing here — trying to fix the election for someone she wants,” Bertani said.

Petrosky has never publicly opposed Cerilli's campaign for Congress. But in an interview last month, she said she would not stack the local committee with Cerilli supporters, and she favored appointments for people who would work for all Democratic candidates and would participate in a wide range of local party efforts.

On Tuesday, Petrosky again said her actions to keep dozens of committee posts vacant was an effort to ensure the process to select a nominee was fair to all the candidates.

“I would hope we can go forward. I have no ill will. She (Cerilli) did what she had to do, and I had to do what I thought I had to do,” Petrosky said.

There are 390 committee positions from Westmoreland County eligible to vote in this month's caucus.

Of the roughly 1,000 committee members eligible to vote from counties in the 18th District, party officials expect about 500 to attend the Nov. 19 meeting at Washington High School to pick a candidate for the March special election.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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