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Dem leader: Keep eye on Braddock's Fetterman in race to battle Toomey

| Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, 11:35 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Marcel Groen, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, speaks with the Trib on Jan. 7, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Marcel Groen, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, speaks with the Trib on Jan. 7, 2016.

The new chairman of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party sees a dark horse in Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, the newest and least-known entrant in the U.S. Senate race.

“I think Fetterman is more competitive than people think he is,” Marcel Groen told the Tribune-Review.

Groen said Fetterman has a chance “because he's so different, and he's really good on issues. Most people who are different are just nuts.”

Fetterman is outwardly noted for his tattoos, large stature and work shirt, a combination at stereotypical odds with his master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

“I think he'd be the toughest candidate in the general” against U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, Groen said during a visit with reporters and editors. “In a society looking for different, he could catch on.”

But Groen would not predict a potential winner, calling the primary race “interesting” and praising all candidates.

He noted Katie McGinty, who worked for Al Gore and in the Clinton White House before she served as environmental protection secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell, has strong ties within the party. Joe Sestak, a former congressman who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010, has strong grassroots strength.

“Katie has more institutional support,” Groen said. “Joe has more committed support … and nobody's going to outwork Joe.”

It's likely none of the three will get an official stamp of approval from the state party.

Groen is working to end the Democrats' tradition of primary endorsements and plans to introduce a motion at the state committee meeting planned for the weekend of Jan. 22 through Jan. 23. He said caucus chairs have agreed to the concept, part of his plan to create a “new culture” among Pennsylvania Democrats.

Groen took over as chairman of the state party in September after about two decades heading up Democratic politics in Montgomery County, where he not only facilitated the first-ever Democratic win over a Republican for county office, but followed up with a gradual Democratic domination of county politics.

“Politics isn't nearly as tough as people think it is — if you check your ego at the door,” Groen said.

Eliminating state party endorsements is one of his first steps toward stronger party unity.

Too often the endorsement process created fractures and resentments among candidate loyalists that were difficult to overcome when unity was needed in the general election, Groen said.

And too often, they chose wrong: they endorsed Bob Casey over Ed Rendell for governor in the 2002; Arlen Specter over Sestak to challenge Toomey in 2010; and Patrick Murphy over Kathleen Kane for attorney general in 2012.

This year, Groen asked candidates to pitch in money to host a table during the socializing portion of the committee meeting, ensuring all candidates and attendees wind up in one room instead of individual parties. Almost all agreed to the new format, he said. “This stuff is two ways, not one way,” he said. “I want a collegial atmosphere.”

A memo to county GOP chairs from the Toomey campaign obtained by the Tribune-Review, played out a potential scenario where McGinty and Sestak “undoubtedly fight it out to see who can move farthest to the left.”

Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Toomey leading Sestak by 10 percentage points, and McGinty by 12. A Public Policy Polling release from October showed Toomey leading Fetterman by 7 percentage points, and described the race as a toss-up.

Despite the leads, and united Republican support, the Toomey campaign says it won't take anything for granted.

“We will not be out-organized or out-worked by any opponent,” the memo reads. “We are pleased with our strong position, but we know Pennsylvania elections are very competitive, and we fully expect this one to be hard fought and close.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511.

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