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Name recognition can give candidates edge

| Sunday, March 24, 2002

HARRISBURG — In Pennsylvania, politics can often be a family affair.

The latest example is the controversy in Allegheny County over Leonard “Len” Bodack Jr.'s campaign for his father's state Senate seat in the May 21 primary. Bodack Jr. failed to win the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic committee — even though his father is the committee's chairman. Bodack Sr. is now under pressure to resign his chairmanship.

Bodack's effort to succeed his father is hardly unusual in the commonwealth.

“As consumers, voters are accustomed to consistent themes and familiar brand names,” said Mike Young, a Harrisburg-based political consultant and a former Penn State University professor. “Name-brand politics offers voters familiarity together with expectations about performance if elected.”

Name identification alone, experts said, can boost a candidate by 1 percent or more in a close race.

The gold-standard name in Pennsylvania politics is Casey, Young said.

Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. is running for governor in the Democratic primary. His father, Robert P. Casey, was governor from 1987 to 1995 and auditor general from 1969 to 1977. Matt Casey, a trial lawyer, is an adviser to his brother's campaign.

The pattern is not unique to Pennsylvania.

Nationally, we've seen “the Kennedys, the Bushes and others,” Young said.

In the Pittsburgh area, state Sen. Jay Costa and state Rep. Paul Costa are sons of the late county Treasurer Jay Costa. And it's not just children of well-known pols: State Rep. Sue Laughlin, a Beaver County Democrat, succeeded her late husband, Charlie Laughlin.

After Pete Flaherty served as Pittsburgh mayor, his brother, Jim, was elected Allegheny County commissioner and later a Commonwealth Court judge. Stephen Zappala Jr., the county district attorney, is the son of Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala. He was appointed first, then elected.

David Wecht, the county register of wills, is son of Cyril Wecht, the county coroner and a former commissioner.

The Wilt family dynasty spans three generations. State Rep. Rod Wilt, a Republican from Mercer County, won the seat held by his father, Roy Wilt. Roy Wilt's father, Raymond Wilt, was a state House member (1951-69) from Allegheny County.

State Rep. Keith McCall, a Democrat from Luzerne County, is a second-generation state lawmaker. His father, the late Thomas McCall, served from 1975 to 1981.

In Congress, Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Hollidaysburg, serves in the seat vacated last year by his dad, Bud Shuster.

“You inherit half as many friends as enemies,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, a Republican who holds the Centre County seat that belonged to his father, Doyle Corman.

"There's no question there are benefits in terms of name recognition and contacts," Jake Corman said. But it also can be “tough to live up to."

A potential downside is that some people question the abilities of officeholders' offspring, believing they were handed their jobs, Corman said.

Another potential downside is that the person with the famous name is able to “leapfrog through the process” to the disadvantage of those with less famous names, said Al Neri, editor of the Pennsylvania Report, a political newsletter.

But that's not always how it works. Mina Baker Knoll was unsuccessful in a bid to follow her mother, Catherine Baker Knoll, as state treasurer. David Wecht recently lost a campaign for a state appellate judgeship.

Shawn Flaherty, son of Pete Flaherty, lost a bid for county sheriff. And Mary Flaherty, daughter of Jim, was unable to succeed her dad on Commonwealth Court after the party knocked her off the ballot, Neri said.

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