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Political analysts say tussle over Pa. party chair could hurt Dems

| Monday, June 16, 2014, 4:26 p.m.
REUTERS
Katie McGinty speaks on stage during the final debate among the democratic gubernatorial candidates vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in the November election at Drexel University's Mandell Theater in Philadelphia on May 12, 2014.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Democrats can ill afford an internal squabble as party Chairman Jim Burn pledges to fight a challenge from Katie McGinty, who is gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf's choice to head the organization, political analysts say.

“One of the things the Democrats don't need is infighting in their ranks,” said Steve Peterson, professor of political science at Penn State Harrisburg.

“It seems to be creating unnecessary turmoil in the party” as Wolf tries to unseat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, said Jack Treadway, a retired political science professor from Kutztown State University. There's a longstanding tradition that the person winning the primary for governor gets to name the party chairman, Treadway said.

Burn's supporters say he bucked that tradition in 2010 and stayed on.

Wolf last week chose McGinty, former top environmental regulator under Gov. Ed Rendell and the last-place finisher in the four-way May 20 primary, as the person he wants to be the face of the Democratic Party. He also proposed Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District as party vice chair.

McGinty “is an incredible choice. She complements Tom Wolf in terms of being an incredibly fresh face,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, an early supporter of McGinty for party chair.

Wolf, a York businessman who ran as an outsider, served in Rendell's cabinet as revenue secretary.

Burn, a Millvale attorney, did not consent to an interview.

“The issue for the committee to decide this Saturday is whether the party picks its leadership from the top down or the bottom up,” Burn said in an email to the Trib. “I will support whatever decision the state committee members make in that regard.”

Wolf told committee members in an email he knows he needs “a battle-tested team in place to take on Tom Corbett, build the party and elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”

J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said it seems likely the matter will be settled before the Democratic State Committee meets.

“It'd be a pretty big loss for Tom Wolf if Katie McGinty didn't win,” Leckrone said.

McGinty's office declined comment. Wolf's spokesmen did not respond to emails.

“This is the chance for the state committee to extend an olive branch and offer support for Wolf,” said Larry Ceisler, a media consultant from Philadelphia with Democratic ties. McGinty of Chester County “is an inspirational figure,” Ceisler said.

Nancy Mills, chairwoman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said Wolf carried the county “by an absolutely overwhelming margin” and won all 67 counties in Pennsylvania. She said Burn should step aside, even though he's done a good job as chairman.

But Frank Rosenhoover, a retired teacher and union representative from Altoona, said he is backing Burn. “You don't throw the captain of the ship overboard because you have different passengers,” he said.

Jack Hanna, an Indiana County attorney, said, “I've never seen a chairman of the Democratic Party work as diligently with as much leadership as Jim Burn.”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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