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With municipal primaries less than two months away, West Chester Democrats held unexpected votes for endorsing candidates, including the Magisterial District Judge race for District Court 15-1-04, which includes the borough’s east side.
Those Democrats voting endorsed attorney Jon Long for the seat being vacated by Magisterial District Judge Gwenn Knapp. But the vote didn’t come without some controversy, sparking a dispute over the proper procedures for giving a local candidate a boost in the primary.
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When asked, a representative of the other candidate running against Long in the primary, Marian Vito, contested the validity of the endorsement.
“The Chester County Democratic Committee bylaws specify that only those who live in the district can vote to endorse,” said Diane LeBold, campaign manager for Vito, and also a member of the borough Democratic Committee. “It’s not a matter of legal, but a matter of process and procedure.”
She contended that the votes of those outside the eastern district of the borough were improper. LeBold said Vito did not seek the endorsement or put her name in contention, arguing that the position of district justice is a non-partisan one and should not be politicized.
LeBold, herself a former borough councilwoman and a contestant in the new borough elections, cited the rules of the county’s Democratic Committee in her dispute with the vote.
According to the bylaws of the Chester County Democratic Committee, or CCDC, under Article XII, Section 1, “… the County Committee shall hold a meeting for the purpose of selecting candidates to be endorsed by the Democratic Committee of Chester County. These endorsements must carry the Convention by 55 percent of those voting. Endorsements shall be appropriate for public office but not for party office. Where the public office represents only a portion of Chester County, only those delegates who live in that portion shall be eligible to vote.”
District Court 15-1-04 encompasses Wards 1, 2, 4 and 5 in West Chester.
However, the endorsement vote for Long was open to all the borough Democrats in the meeting.
“It was a little bit of imprecision on the whole thing,” acknowledged Jim Salvas, vice chairman of the West Chester Borough Democrats and campaign chair for Long in addressing he dispute. “Nothing in that article says ‘zones’ at all. The word isn’t mentioned. It’s kind of left open that that’s open.”
Salvas, who has been involved with the Democratic party for a number of years, said this isn’t a new issue.
“This has been going on for a long time,” he said. “I remember, going back to commissioners’ races, there was even a question of whether or not the individual zones could endorse candidates. That was laid to rest and they started to do it and endorse candidates for various offices. The only stricture laid on was that they couldn’t contradict with the county party, so if the county party endorsed a candidate, then a zone couldn’t turn around and endorse his opponent. Otherwise, if it was open, then the zones were allowed to endorse.”
LeBold doesn’t agree with Salvas’ interpretation of the bylaws.
“We have confirmation from a former solicitor of the county party that the bylaws of the county apply to the zones,” she said. “They are bound by the by-laws of the county. The entire committee voted when, in fact, we’ve had confirmation that only those who live in the magisterial district were allowed to vote. I had the bylaws right in front of me and it was pretty clear to me that they were wrong. I showed it to them and read it to them out loud.”
Andy Thomas, Long’s campaign manager, said it’s not typical to see the borough Democrats endorse a candidate, though it’s something they are allowed to do.
“Normally what happens in West Chester is the Democrats there usually don’t endorse,” he said. “They tend to take the view that they would like to see the voters decide who should be the best choice. However, they do reserve the right to whenever they feel the need to endorse a candidate.”
At the level of the party’s county executive committee, the dispute is viewed as a matter of “splitting hairs.”
Committee Vice Chairwoman Lani Frank said the party’s bylaws deal primarily with action taken at the full committee’s annual Nominating Convention, which was held in February. If the West Chester committee members had opted to vote for an endorsed candidate at that time, they would have been instructed to have only those committee people who live in the district covered by Knapp’s court participate, Frank said in an interview Monday.
LeBold attributes the lack of an endorsement in February to Long’s inability to get on the Republican ballot, which Vito is also on.
“(It) makes me think that’s why his supporters were so eager to get this endorsement,” she said. “I think if Jon had been able to get onto the Republican ballot, they would not have done the endorsement. I feel certain of that. It would be silly to get the Democratic endorsement when you’re also on the Republican ballot. Marian is intentionally not seeking endorsements for that very reason. They really had no reason to do what they did.”
At the meeting March 23, LeBold had made a motion to not endorse a candidate, but was defeated by a majority.
Following that, another motion was made to endorse and so Long won 10-2 with an abstention — the two opposed being LeBold and Sue Bayne.
Ed Brownley abstained on the idea that he still didn’t think there should be an endorsement, Salvas said.
Because the committee chose to hold the endorsement vote several weeks after the Nominating Convention, the committee was unclear who could take part, Frank said. She noted that Long’s candidacy was overwhelming endorsed by the committee members voting from across the borough, but would also have been successful if only the votes in the eastern district were counted.
“It is something of a moot point,” Frank said. “We felt like this is splitting hairs. It is not like he wouldn’t have won.”
If the endorsement vote was left to just the members in the proper wards, it would have been 6-2 in favor of Long.
“The fact is, the vast majority of the people on the committee are supporting Jon Long for the District Justice,” Salvas said. “I think that constitutes an endorsement from my point of view.”
LeBold admits she knew Long would win the endorsement even before the vote was held.
Her main concern at this point is that the committee violated the bylaws and wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Staff writer Michael P. Rellahan contributed to this story.