By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Democrats, like right-thinking Americans everywhere, can at least agree on the superiority of the 1970s-era Pittsburgh Steelers. On Saturday, state party leaders unanimously voted to endorse the Supreme Court bid of Dwayne Woodruff, an Allegheny County judge and one-time Steelers defensive standout.

But it wasn’t always so easy to reach consensus during the state party’s Saturday winter meeting. Other than Judge Woodruff, Allegheny County residents seeking statewide judgeships fared poorly.

“It’s been our judicial system that has been our backstop to make sure that our individual rights and our family rights are protected”

Speaking to more than 300 state committee members at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Judge Woodruff called the endorsement a “different feeling today than two years ago.” In 2015, he finished fifth in a field of six Democratic primary candidates competing for three seats on the court. This year, he is the lone Democrat seeking the seat vacated by former Justice J. Michael Eakin.

“It’s been our judicial system that has been our backstop to make sure that our individual rights and our family rights are protected,” Judge Woodruff told the committee.

Judge Woodruff likely will face one of two Republicans: interim Supreme Court Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy or Superior Court Judge Judy Olson. He’s expected to formally launch his campaign in Pittsburgh this week. But while Judge Woodruff urged party members to back “other judges that you’re going to endorse,” the choice wasn’t always simple.

The party’s endorsement can be helpful in a primary battle, especially in low-attention judicial races where voters may be more likely to follow their leadership’s cues. Seven Democrats are competing for two openings on the state’s Commonwealth Court, which handles lawsuits involving government agencies. Lackawanna County attorney Todd Eagan, who ran unsuccessfully for the court in 2015 but was a committee favorite, secured an endorsement for one seat. But none of the other candidates could gain the required two-thirds vote from party officials.

Two Pittsburgh-area candidates, Irene McLaughlin Clark and Timothy Barry, were among four candidates eliminated after one round of voting. In a second and final round, Joe Cosgrove, who Gov. Tom Wolf appointed to the court temporarily last year, led Philadelphia Judge Ellen Ceisler, but not by enough to secure the endorsement.

Democrats endorsed the four candidates running for four open spots on Superior Court: Deborah Kunselman, Maria McLaughlin, Geoffrey Moulton, and Carolyn Nichols. All except Judge Kunselman, a Beaver County judge, hail from southeastern Pennsylvania. A fifth contender, Allegheny County attorney William Caye II, withdrew from the endorsement process Friday, though he has not ruled out running in the primary.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, had another vote on their minds: The selection of the next chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Pennsylvania will send 10 representatives to Atlanta for a Feb. 23-26 gathering of the party’s national body. Tops on the agenda will be replacing controversial former DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was ousted in a controversy over leaked party emails last year. At Saturday’s meeting, Franklin County Democratic chair Sheri Morgan said “it would be really great if we knew how our committee members were feeling” about the choice.

Marcel Groen, the party’s chair, argued the question was not appropriate, but said he is backing Tom Perez, Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor. Mr. Groen described Mr. Perez’s record as “stellar.”

Two DNC members are from Allegheny County. County chair Nancy Patton Mills said she was undecided about the decision, which she called “one of the biggest choices that has ever been made” for the party. Sylvia Wilson backs Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison.

Mr. Perez is seen as a leading choice of the party establishment, while Mr. Ellison is viewed as a more progressive pick. Mr. Ellison attended the party gathering on Friday. He told a reporter that the party had suffered tough losses in 2016 because it “focused on the presidential races, and not up and down the ballot. [It had] focused on every four years and not every day, focused on swing states and not blue or red states. And we focused on likely voters.”

Both he and Mr. Perez say the party must widen that focus, campaigning in states or rural areas it has often ignored. On Saturday, that idea seemed popular even among Democrats who differed on other issues.

“We need to start running people for every office in the state,” Mr. Groen said. “You don’t have to win everything. You just have to try everything.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com; Twitter @CPotterPGH