Westmoreland Democrats hope to gain traction in 2018 midterm election
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on how the major political parties in Western Pennsylvania are preparing for the 2018 elections. Today, the Trib focuses on the Democrats. Next Sunday, the Republicans.
Westmoreland County Democrats say they are poised to do something they haven't done in years: contend in upcoming primaries for races in each legislative district.
Last year, the local party — which holds a registration edge of about 7,000 voters over Republicans — failed to field candidates in four legislative races, said Lorraine Petrosky, chairwoman of the county Democratic Committee.
That included the race for the 18th District, which includes a good chunk of Westmoreland County and saw Mt. Lebanon Republican Tim Murphy again skate to victory without opposition despite the district holding an 81,000-registration edge for Democrats.
“We're pretty sure we have at least one candidate for every (legislative) district,” Petrosky said. “And we came out of the convention with a pretty good candidate (for the 18th District congressional seat vacated by Murphy) in Conor Lamb.”
He won the nomination over Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli, a Hempfield Democrat who took the county party to court in a fight to fill committee vacancies with her supporters.
Petrosky, a retired pre-school teacher, social worker and mother of six from Latrobe, first volunteered for Democratic candidates in the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, handing out literature as a child. She continued to volunteer for state and national candidates for years.
When she took the helm at the county Democratic Committee 2 1⁄2 years ago, she quickly realized it could be her toughest campaign yet.
The party's 70,000-voter-registration edge had nearly disappeared over a 25-year period, and more than two-thirds of 604 Democratic committee seats were vacant. The new leadership scoured for a starting point to rebuild.
“There were no records,” Petrosky said.
Democrats grew complacent while Republicans pumped money into the region, registered voters and picked off legislative seats one by one, said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“What happened in Westmoreland County is not unique. You can see it from Washington County to Erie,” he said. “The Democrats have had people who are issue-oriented, not power-oriented. They alienated the union people and the values of voters. They didn't focus on network and leadership infrastructure.
“The Democrats, in my opinion, gave away the store.”
Despite maintaining a slight registration edge, rank-and-file Westmoreland Democrats voted with Republicans to swing the county for George Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.
Votes like that were telling, said Paul Adams, an associate professor of political science at Pitt's Greensburg campus and an executive committee member of the Westmoreland Democratic Party.
Adams grew up in Westmoreland County and left for a decade to complete his education. He was stunned when he returned and got involved with the party in 2008.
“The meetings weren't organized. They had no money. It was like the classic Will Rogers quote, ‘I'm not a member of an organized party. I'm a Democrat,' ” Adams said.
He credits Petrosky with reinvigorating fundraising and facing the reality that the once-invincible organization's edge existed largely in memory.
“In a lot of ways, the margin has been a paper margin. Many registered Democrats had been Democrats a long time, but they didn't vote Democratic very often at all,” Adams said. “Despite the fact that we technically have a registration advantage, we're still the minority party.”
Trump's victory in Westmoreland County — where he beat Hillary Clinton 116,427 to 59,506 — drove that home.
Petrosky said it also awakened many young and middle-aged voters, some of whom have stepped forward to get involved with the party for the first time.
“We're getting people who are ready to get out there and work and do the due diligence,” she said. “We need to get on the phone and knock on doors and have events and have meetings. It doesn't just happen. You really have to work.”
Petrosky said Trump has given the party an opening for growth and influence, and party leaders hope to seize that opportunity.
Meanwhile, county Democrats are dealing with the aftermath of an intraparty battle that landed in court last month.
Cerilli, a 31-year-old lawyer and former Miss Pennsylvania whose family has a long and storied history in local politics, led the Democratic ticket running for county commissioner in 2015. She became chair of the board of commissioners despite running as an independent Democrat.
In a county where Democratic registration has skewed decidedly grayer than that of the Republican Party, some saw Cerilli as the new face of a party organization in the midst of a generational transition. It was a title she was more than ready to claim.
Last month, Cerilli — who was seeking the party's nomination to run for Congress in a special election to fill Murphy's seat after he resigned amid an extramarital scandal — asked a judge to force Petrosky to seat 70 of her supporters to vacancies on the county committee.
The presence of her supporters in those vacancies could have boosted Cerilli's bid at a special congressional nominating convention that also included committee members from Greene, Washington and Allegheny counties.
Petrosky balked. She said Cerilli had missed the deadline to file such a request. A judge ruled in Petrosky's favor.
Cerilli ultimately lost to Lamb.
Petrosky and Cerilli both insist the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee is strong. But the two haven't spoken to each other.
“I'm still waiting for (Petrosky) to call and congratulate me for winning in 2015,” Cerilli said when asked if the two had mended fences.
Cerilli said she will support Lamb in the March 13 special election. But she makes no secret of her ambition to run for Congress someday and said she hasn't decided whether she will seek the district nomination again in the May primary.
County's last congressman
She might want to touch base with Ron Klink, the county's last resident congressman, who served from 1992-98.
A popular KDKA-TV newsman prior to running for office, Klink said he knew his name identification would help boost his candidacy. Nevertheless, Klink sought the committee's endorsement in a primary battle that pitted him against three other candidates in a district that included parts of five counties.
“I knew to be successful I had to get the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee to endorse me,” he said. “When you're in politics, you need to broaden your base. You can't be suing the party you sought to be part of.”
A senior policy adviser with Nelson Mullins in Washington, D.C., Klink still calls Murrysville home. He said he is disturbed by what he's seen on the national stage, where he said the Democratic Party moved too close to Wall Street and big business.
Democrats need to take advantage of this juncture in the national debate to redefine themselves at the national and local levels, he said.
“No one should lose their home today because some member of the family got sick. We need to be the party of working people, of the middle class,” Klink said.
And if the Westmoreland Democrats are moving harder in that direction, Klink said he is comfortable with that.
Scott Avolio, a Greensburg lawyer and member of the Pennsylvania Republican Committee, however, attributes much of the GOP's success in Westmoreland County to what he sees as a leftward move among local Democrats in Westmoreland County.
“I think candidates always have to remain diligent about their policies,” Avolio said. “I think the shift (in voting patterns) has been as much about policy as it was party-oriented.
“Twenty years ago, Democratic issues were relatively conservative and the candidates who were successful here remained conservative. The losses that have occurred locally have been when there is an attempt to move further to the left and run on issues that don't resonate with Western Pennsylvania.
“If the Democrats fill the ballot with liberal gun control, pro-abortion national leftist candidates, they won't have success. However, a quality candidate who speaks for the area will always get a look on the ballot.”
Gerald Shuster, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh, has observed the ins and outs of local politics in Western Pennsylvania for decades.
The give and take among Democrats in the Westmoreland County party isn't surprising, he said.
“Politics everywhere — and in particular in our area — is in such a state of flux that people are actually more concerned today than they have been for a long time. Mostly they are concerned because of what is or is not occurring in Washington, D.C.,” Shuster said. “They are feeling left out in so many ways that there is a keen interest in politics.”
He sees it among his Pitt students. Although college students are among a demographic known for low voter participation, Shuster said 33 of 35 students in his political communications course this fall voted in the off-year election.
“And for a lot of them, they're not from Pittsburgh, so they had to take the time to get an absentee ballot,” he said. “Millennials are interested, and they know what they want.”
Both parties will work diligently in the upcoming midterm elections to take advantage of a wave of new interest in politics, Shuster predicted.
Westmoreland County Democrats hope that will pay dividends as they endeavor to claim seats in a midterm election that could influence re-apportionment for the next 10 years.