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Rep. White's 'error in judgment' spurs challenge for seat

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:03 a.m.
Paul Walsh, a Burgettstown attorney, will run for a state House seat in 2014.

HARRISBURG — Rep. Jesse White's online antics prompted a Burgettstown attorney to question the incumbent's leadership and plunge into the 2014 state House race.

Paul Walsh, 49, lost to White by 487 votes when they ran for an open seat in 2006. White, D-Cecil, also a lawyer, is preparing to vigorously defend his seat.

Winning the Democratic primary in May “is about who can raise the most money,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.

Political insiders say it's unusual for a House race to gear up this early. White's Web-based adventures are fueling early interest.

White, 35, a prolific user of Twitter and other social media, acknowledged in May that he assumed identities of some constituents online. Using fictitious identities in other cases, he criticized lawmakers and constituents who support natural gas drilling.

“He's not the kind of leader we need,” Walsh said.

“I made an error in judgment for which I have apologized, and I am confident my constituents will judge me based on my passion and proven record of leadership on important issues, including Marcellus shale, over the past six years,” White said.

To remind voters of White's statements that some constituents considered “outlandish,” Walsh will need considerable campaign funds, DiSarro said. It remains to be seen whether Walsh or White can raise money, he said.

“It's hard to measure the effect anytime you put yourself into situations where you become a lightning rod, a polarizing influence, and have controversy surrounding you,” said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “You leave yourself open to being portrayed by opponents as not providing solid leadership in the district.”

DiSarro said Walsh is “a respected attorney, and he'll be a formidable candidate.” Yet it would be a mistake to “write Jesse off,” given his advantage of incumbency and because he's a hard worker, DiSarro said.

The Washington County District Attorney's Office said it would investigate White's Internet activities, though District Attorney Eugene A. Vittone hasn't issued any statement since. He didn't return phone calls on Monday and Tuesday.

DiSarro, who taught White when he attended W&J, said he believes Vittone isn't likely to file a criminal charge.

Janice Gibbs, 64, a retired waitress who lives near McDonald, said she believes White targeted her online because she is “pro-drilling.”

“When I saw my name used, it scared me,” said Gibbs, a Republican.

Under an alias, White called her an “uneducated yinzer” and “dumb as a bunch of rocks,” Gibbs said. “How can I trust someone like that?”

Though some Democrats in the spring speculated the party might withhold backing for White, he said this week he's confident he'll have support from the House Democratic Caucus.

Natural gas drilling will be one of the top issues in the race. Walsh said he supports closely regulated drilling. White has been a harsh critic of the industry and state environmental regulators, but says he does not oppose drilling.

“I have always supported the responsible development of Marcellus shale,” White said in an email. “I have never once called for a ban or a moratorium on drilling, because I recognize the positive economic impact for the region, and that position will not change.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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