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GOP panel endorses 2 Westmoreland commissioner candidates

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 10:49 p.m.

Girding for a fight this fall against Democratic incumbents in the race for Westmoreland County commissioner, members of the county Republican committee on Thursday chose two candidates to lead the GOP effort to take over a majority role at the county courthouse.

Committee members met last night in the Founders Hall amphitheater at Westmoreland County Community College and overwhelmingly endorsed Hempfield Township Supervisor Kim Ward and Penn Township Commissioner George Dunbar from a field of five candidates in the May 15 primary.

Ward and Dunbar said they would focus their joint campaigns on challenging the Democratic leadership at the courthouse, where incumbents Tom Balya and Tom Ceraso hold the majority.

Democrats in Westmoreland have been in power in county government for the last 50 years.

"Common-sense changes are needed, and we need a team of Republicans to tell voters why the Democrats should be fired," Ward said.

Dunbar said he and Ward would coordinate campaign efforts and suggested the party endorsement would preclude a serious primary challenge this spring. He stopped short of asking that the unendorsed candidates drop out of the race.

"I believe the committee can influence the results and they will be fighting an uphill battle," Dunbar said.

Party Chairman Perry Christopher said no candidates will be pressured to withdraw. The deadline for candidates to file nominating petitions with the county election bureau is Tuesday.

Last night's endorsement meeting was the first time in recent memory that county Republicans voted to conduct a closed primary. Ward and Dunbar said before the vote they would drop out of the race if they did not win an endorsement.

After the endorsements, attorney Wayne McGrew and Mike Reese, the chief of staff to outgoing Commissioner Phil Light, said they would remain in the race. Delmont Councilman Jim Bortz said he would re-evaluate his candidacy over the next several days.

Republican leaders set a confrontational tone for the fall election, questioning each candidate last night about their intentions to actively fight the Democrats as well as their views on nepotism, which they claim is running rampant at the courthouse.

"We have to go after the incumbents," Dunbar said.

Candidates needed 96 votes to win an endorsement. Ward secured 136 of a possible 144 votes, while Dunbar received 101 votes during the first and only balloting. Reese finished third with 31 votes.

Before the voting, Christopher had reporters removed from the room in an effort to keep secret the identity of whom committee members supported.

"We didn't want to embarrass anyone," Christopher said.

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