Epic Battles No. 6: Cwalina, born politician, upsets Horvath in '85 race
Allen Cwalina was a born politician. Everybody knew that. He was nominated for Shamokin Area school director while he was still in high school, and many people were surprised he didn't win.
In 1985, Cwalina, was only 26 years old and fresh off a high-profile stint as an aide to U.S. Congressman Frank Harrison (D-11). He had an ambitious goal in 1985 - the Northumberland County controller's office.
That office had been held for 20 years by a Republican stalwart, Lou Horvath, of Kulpmont. Horvath was a fixture at the courthouse from 1966 through 1985.
Though a diehard Republican, "Hago," as he was fondly known to all, had many Democratic friends, especially in his hometown of Kulpmont. He had a couple difficult campaigns, notably in 1973 and 1977, both against Bill Wolfe, but he always managed to win, mostly because a fair share of Democrats happily split their tickets to vote for him.
When Horvath disagreed with someone, he didn't care who knew it. As controller, he naturally sparred from time to time with Democratic boards of commissioners, but when the Republicans held the commissioners' office from 1976 to 1979, he had no qualms about standing up to them either. But it was never personal. He might attend a public meeting in the morning and argue with Jim Kelley, Democratic board chairman, about county bids, but at lunchtime, you'd glimpse the two of them sitting on the first-floor bench sharing a joke.
When the 1985 election came along, Horvath would have preferred to retire. Two years earlier, against his better judgment, he allowed the Republican Party to nominate him for commissioner, and his loss was a big disappointment. But the word was, he was talked into running by Republican Chairman Daniel D. Strausser. Then nothing came of efforts in 1984 to have him appointed to the board to succeed the late Ned Stank.
Horvath was always popular throughout the county, but it seemed he had gone to the well once too often. Voters had a yen for change.
Cwalina waged an aggressive attack against Horvath, who didn't campaign nearly as hard as he did in past elections. Cwalina pilloried Horvath for embezzlement scandals that had occurred in the county sheriff and Sunbury district justice offices, even though the controller's office had no involvement in either. Cwalina claimed that proper oversight by the controller's office would have prevented these problems.
Cwalina also brought public attention to rumors that, if elected again, Horvath planned to resign before the conclusion of the term. The Cwalina campaign ran newspaper ads claiming that if that happened, the next controller would be "handpicked" by Strausser. For effect, the ad included a recent photo of the always colorful Strausser at a Republican rally wearing a native American headdress.
Cwalina won with a margin of more than 2,300 votes. On the same election day, Democrats won the Shamokin mayoralty and captured the majority on city council. As a result, Strausser was criticized in some quarters for devoting too much energy opposing the retention of Judge Peter Krehel at the expense of critical county and city races.
Cwalina was re-elected in 1989 and 1993, and went on to be elected commissioner in 1995 and 1999.
Horvath had one more political comeback to savor - election as mayor of his hometown. He left county office with plenty of friends, especially in the heavily Democratic borough of Kulpmont.