Cerilli's primary success in Westmoreland attributed to busy campaign
A year ago, Gina Cerilli spent her days working as a public relations specialist for the county's water authority and her nights enduring the rigors of life as a Duquesne University law student.
What a difference a year makes.
On Tuesday, Cerilli, 29, of Hempfield was the top vote-getter among all candidates in the race for Westmoreland County commissioner, surging past several seasoned veterans.
The Democrat will go up against Democratic incumbent Ted Kopas and Republican incumbents Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney in the fall, when voters decide which three will lead the county for the next four years.
Some campaign watchers have painted Cerilli, a former Miss Pennsylvania, as the poster child for what hard work mixed with a well-oiled political machine and a big campaign war chest can yield for even the most inexperienced, yet savvy, candidates.
Others say Cerilli simply has the political bug in her blood. Her grandfather, Egidio “Gene” Cerilli, who died in 1991, was a force in Westmoreland County and state Democratic politics for years.
Cerilli thinks it might be “all of the above” that led to her victory on Tuesday.
“It was the first time ‘Cerilli' was ever on a yard sign or has run for office,” she said. “I know the name had been around, but I was 5 when my grandfather died. I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way.”
For her, “the old-fashioned way” meant knocking on doors, meeting and greeting voters from Belle Vernon and Monessen to New Kensington and Ligonier, asking them to vote for her in the primary.
She estimates that by Tuesday, she had knocked on more than 8,000 doors and attended more than 120 events from one end of the county to the other, shaking hands, talking about issues and convincing voters that she was their candidate.
She spent more money — more than $96,000 — than any of the other candidates for commissioner, according to campaign expense reports.
And her face was everywhere, on billboards, yard signs and pricey, heavily aired television commercials in the days leading up to the primary.
All this, she said, helped her win more than 40 percent of the vote Tuesday, ahead of Kopas, who pulled in 37 percent. Cerilli garnered nearly 2,000 more votes than Kopas.
In the Republican primary, Anderson netted 36 percent of the vote, while Courtney finished with 29 percent.
Cerilli's primary success was not unexpected, even among Republicans.
“I believe she has people around her who knew what they were doing,” said state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, a former county commissioner and GOP chairwoman. “I haven't seen anybody work that hard for a commissioner's seat since I worked that hard for a commissioner's seat.”
Those within her party said she filled voters' hunger for a new candidate with a new perspective.
“Her people got out the vote, and people believe she's smart,” said Dante Bertani, former chairman of the county's Democratic committee. “I think she shows a desire for change in the county, and people figure she's a fresh face with new ideas.”
Another former Democratic committee chairman, Ken Burkley, agrees that Cerilli's newness on the political scene may have been a selling point for many voters.
But he said her aggressive fundraising and grass-roots approach to campaigning pushed her over the top.
What's ahead for Cerilli remains to be seen.
She said she'll continue campaigning and studying for the bar exam, having graduated from law school this month.
She said she'll support the other Democratic candidates, but at this point doesn't plan to run a joint campaign with Kopas in the fall.
“I'll run my campaign independently,” Cerilli said.
If successful, she would become only the third woman to serve as commissioner — Ward was the last and Dorothy Shope was the first in the 1970s — in the county's 242-year history.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or email@example.com.