‘Moderate’ Westmoreland County Democrats showcase candidates
It was like old times for Westmoreland County Democrats on Sunday afternoon.
A polka band played on stage at the American Legion Hall in Jeannette as hot dogs, beans and cake were served. Pitchers of beer were passed around as candidates circulated among the crowd that officials said was expected to reach more than 1,000.
They came to rally support for what they called a new movement for the political party that for decades dominated local politics but whose influence has waned as a conservative and Republican wave took over.
Led by Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli and a group of six candidates for county row offices, the group calling itself “moderate Democrats” opened the 2019 campaign season with what they called an old-time political rally.
“We are pro-life, pro-gun and pro-union,” Cerilli said. “The national Democratic Party has gone way too far to the left. The same can be said about the national Republican Party that I think has gone too far to the right.
“Everybody needs to come together in the middle and work together.”
Cerilli, a first-term Democratic county commissioner, is seeking re-election this year. She recruited a slate of candidates for five county row offices to run as part of a new Democratic coalition they said will be more reflective of Westmoreland County political views.
The candidates include incumbent Recorder of Deeds Tom Murphy and former District Judge James Albert, who is running for sheriff.
The others on Cerilli’s ticket are Mark Mears of Mt. Pleasant, who is a candidate for county controller; Susan Vosefski of Unity, who is seeking the register of wills job; and Rostraver resident Matt Mascara, who is running for treasurer. Mascara is the grandson of former U.S. Rep. Frank Mascara.
Mears said the group’s platform is a throwback to old-time local Democratic politics and not an olive branch to lure support from what has become an increasingly conservative and Republican county.
“What I really sound like is a person from Westmoreland County,” Mears said.
Once dominant, now in minority, barely
Democrats 20 years ago had a more than 3-to-1 edge in voter registration in Westmoreland County and held nearly every major elected office.
After decades in the minority, Republicans this month became the top party in the county. According to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State, the local GOP now has 104,134 registered voters in its ranks while Democrats were slightly behind with 103,436.
Republicans also hold most of the county’s seats in the state House and Senate and five of the nine county row office seats. The GOP briefly held a majority on the board of commissioners until Democrats retook control in 2015.
Cerilli, a first-time candidate, topped the ballot four years ago, as she ran an independent and separate campaign from incumbent Democrat Ted Kopas.
Kopas, who is also seeking re-election this year, was not invited to Sunday’s rally. He said he has no animosity with Cerilli and her more moderate branch of the local political party.
“I think in this day and age, especially in Harrisburg and Washington, the last thing everyone wants is more partisanship and more defining what type of Democrats or Republicans there might be,” Kopas said. “I’m not getting caught up in partisan fighting with my own party or the other side.”
Cerilli, who challenged party leadership last year as part of her brief and aborted effort to run for a vacant Congressional seat, said she has not endorsed or sponsored anyone to run against Kopas. Both are currently the only Democratic candidates seeking spots this year on the board of commissioners.
Rachael Shaw, president of the county’s Democratic Committee, attended Cerilli’s rally Sunday. She said she will attempt to stay neutral between the two factions of the party.
“I’m trying to give equal support. I do like the candidates, and they have the freedom to operate their campaigns as they see fit,” Shaw said. “Westmoreland County voters are certainly very unique. That’s why Democrats outnumbered Republicans but there are still a lot of conservative Democrats both here and in Pennsylvania.”
For Cerilli, she said the Republican surge required Democrats to re-evaluate.
“There’s still room for moderates,” Cerilli said. “A lot of people were born and raised in Democratic households and switched to the Republican Party.
“We’re telling them to come back home.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .