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Ward to be 1st female commissioner in 3 decades

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

Democrats Tom Balya and Tom Ceraso retain their posts as Westmoreland County commissioners joined by newcomer Republican Kim Ward, a Hempfield Township supervisor and early front-runner who placed a close second to Balya.

Republican Kim Ward is the first woman elected as a Westmoreland County commissioner since Democrat Dorothy Shope won a spot in 1972.

But Democrats held on to a majority on the board Tuesday as incumbents Tom Balya and Tom Ceraso led the way and Ward won the third spot.

Republican George Dunbar is the odd man out.

Balya, 50, of Greensburg will begin his fourth term in office in January. Ceraso, 44, of New Kensington, will serve a third term.

With all 306 precincts reporting, Balya received 26.2 percent of the vote; Ward, 25.6 percent; Ceraso, 24.9 percent; and Dunbar, 23 percent according to unofficial returns. Only 2,432 votes separated Ceraso and Dunbar.

Balya narrowly held on to the top spot on the ticket, something that he has accomplished all four times he has run for county commissioner.

Ward, 51, a Hempfield Township supervisor, led Balya at various times throughout the evening. In the end, she was unable to overcome the Democrats' voter registration edge.

Ward finished second, something no Republican had accomplished in recent memory.

"It would be wonderful to win both of these spots, but we fought a real good fight," Ward said. "It was the first real race for commissioner in a long time. I'm disappointed we didn't win a majority because it's much easier to affect change if we had control of the board."

Shortly before midnight, Dunbar conceded defeat.

Balya and Ceraso said they were pleased to hold on to the majority, but they blamed the close vote on negative advertising from the Republican candidates and their supporters.

"I'm happy to win, and I appreciate the support of the people of Westmoreland County," Balya said from his victory party at the Moose Club in downtown Greensburg.

Ceraso said he was satisfied with securing a spot on the board.

"With all the negative ads they did on TV and through mailers, I thought it would suppress my numbers, but I didn't think I would lose my job. As long as I get to serve four more years, I'm happy," Ceraso said.

Although Democrats hold a 55 percent to 36 percent edge over Republicans in voter registration, local GOP leaders hoped that success in various state and national elections would translate to a win this year on the county level.

In previous races, Republican efforts to win two seats on the board had been short-circuited by candidates who refused to campaign together.

Four years ago might have been the best chance for a GOP victory, as just 7,300 votes separated top vote-getter Balya from the fourth-place finisher, Republican Gene Porterfield. Four years prior, in 1999, the gap was 10,000 votes.

In a departure from previous contests, the two Republican candidates this year ran as a team in hopes of winning a majority on the three-member board for the first time in more than 50 years.

Ward, a Hempfield supervisor and longtime political operative and consultant, was considered an early front-runner. She hand-picked Dunbar, a Penn Township commissioner, as her running mate.

Although the Ward-Dunbar team raised and spent more money during the campaign season than is typical for Republicans, the candidates faced a more than 4-to-1 money disadvantage to the Democrats.

And the campaign was short on issues. While the Republicans criticized the Democratic incumbents over their fiscal oversight of the county, Ward and Dunbar spent much of the campaign season issuing news releases challenging the ethics of Balya and Ceraso.

They accused Balya of cronyism and Ceraso of using his office for personal gain, such as his use of a county car and a vendor-paid trip in 2005 to the Master's Golf Tournament in Georgia.

The Democrats, in turn, attempted to link Dunbar to the bankruptcy of a company for which he worked until 2005. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Balya and Ceraso also criticized Ward's voting record on the Hempfield board.

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