Epic Battles No. 2: One of each makes history in 2011 commissioner race
It was a first not only for Northumberland County, but, most likely, the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
On Election Day 2011, voters elected a board of commissioners consisting of one Republican, one Democrat and one independent.
The election brought with it two major surprises:
- Merle Phillips was defeated. Yes, the same Merle Phillips who was appointed, with practically universal applause, to the board the year earlier after having retired with more than 30 years service as the 108th District state House member.
- Steve who??? Stephen Bridy, the independent candidate, won. Only four months earlier, the vast majority of county voters had never even heard of him.
It was no surprise that one of the winners was Vinny Clausi, the man who dominated the board of commissioners for the previous four years. Clausi was then at the peak of his popularity, and his re-election was practically a foregone conclusion.
As usual, voters in the May primary nominated two Democrats and two Republicans for the board. There were 11 candidates on the primary ballot, four Democrats and seven Republicans.
Nominated on the Democratic ticket with Clausi was Frank Sawicki, also an incumbent commissioner. Rick Shoch, a Sunbury attorney, and Phillips received Republican nominations. In the general election, party nominees didn't merge their campaign; it became a clear case of "every man for himself."
Bridy, obviously sensing that many voters were less then enthusiastic about the choice they faced in November, recognized a window of opportunity when he saw one. So, during the summer, he filed nomination papers, with the required number of signatures, for a spot on the general election ballot.
It didn't take long for political observers to realize that Bridy's campaign wasn't merely about "making a statement" or gaining public exposure with a position on the ballot. He sponsored events so voters could get to know him, and he devoted the necessary time to campaign from one end of the county to the other.
Then, as summer turned to fall, it became clear that Bridy would be a factor in the race. But most people thought his impact would be limited to taking voters from one or more candidates, thereby affecting the final outcome. In the final week or so of the campaign, it dawned on people that Bridy was a serious candidate with an actual shot at victory.
Clausi seemed a clear winner all along; so, too, did Shoch, who had the happy advantage then of being a "fresh face." Absent Bridy, the fight for the third spot had obviously been between Sawicki and Phillips. One school of thought was that Phillips, because of his name recognition and his popularity in the Sunbury area, would pull through on election day; the other theory was that because Phillips wasn't doing much active campaigning and because many Republicans were annoyed with him for running for a full term in the first place, his vote totals would be depressed and Sawicki would benefit.
When the dust cleared, Shoch came in first, Clausi second, just about 400 votes behind, and Bridy was third, 1,600 votes behind Clausi. Sawicki came in fourth, and Phillips last.
The election of Shoch, Clausi and Bridy signaled the first time ever that a board of commissioners took office without a clear majority and minority.
Since power abhors a vacuum, Clausi and Bridy quickly established their own working alliance, with Shoch filling the role of dissenter or objector. Political majorities, after all, aren't always about R's and D's. In this board, party labels hardly matter because the county political parties themselves have become more and more insignificant.