Epic Battles No. 18: Organization Dems strike back, defeat Kuhns
It was only 18 years ago, but as political eras are measured, that's practically a lifetime.
In the 1995 Democratic primary for Northumberland County commissioner, Allen Cwalina and Charles Lewis Jr. cruised to victory because they enjoyed enthusiastic support from the Democratic Party organization.
Although political parties in 1995 were not nearly as powerful as they had been prior to 1980, their support for a candidate, whether overt or covert, still swayed a significant number of voters. In 2013, party organizations in Northumberland County still exist, but they have been reduced to the status of minor players, at best.
Many people remember 1995 as the year that Cwalina and Lewis, then seeking their first terms, defeated Eleanor Kuhns, of Coal Township. That's true enough, but what is usually forgotten is there were four additional candidates running in the Democratic primary.
Kuhns, who had recently served as a Coal Township commissioner, lost in a rout when she challenged incumbent Commissioners James P. Kelley and Charles Lewis Sr. in the Democratic commissioner primary in 1991.
By 1995, however, Kuhns was chairperson of the commissioner board. She had been appointed to the board by the court in 1993 after Lewis Sr. died in office. That appointment rankled organization Democrats who believed the appointment should have gone to Charles Lewis Jr. or at least to another "loyal" Democrat who supported Kelley and Lewis in their four county campaigns.
In 1995, they still viewed Kuhns as a usurper. She was an incumbent commissioner even though she had been denied the office four years earlier by Democratic primary voters. Cwalina, then the county controller, and Lewis, son of the late commissioner, were seen as the legitimate successors to the last elected commissioner board.
Also joining the race were Nicholas Goretski, Tom Propst, Ronald McElwee and Donald Snyder. On election night, Cwalina and Lewis were the overwhelming winners by more than 3,000 votes over Kuhns, who finished third. Goretski was in fourth place, with the other three finishing way behind.
Prior to the primary election, there were almost 19,000 registered Democrats in Northumberland County. Although Cwalina and Lewis' winning margin was impressive, it didn't escape attention that they had the support at the election of only about one-third of the Democratic electorate and the combined vote of the five losing candidates exceeded 8,000. Clearly, there were many registered Democrats who sought an alternative to Cwalina/Lewis or were not motivated to vote at all.
And we'll never really know the answer to two key questions:
- How close would the election have been if only Cwalina, Lewis and Kuhns were in the race?
- Was one or more of the Democratic candidates a "stalking horse" to take anti-Cwalina/Lewis votes from Kuhns?