Epic Battles No. 7: Chairmanship was Ruane's undoing
Henry W. Lark was Northumberland County Republican chairman for 35 years. Known far and wide as "Mr. Republican," his political influence was said to extend far beyond the boundaries of the county and was certainly felt in Harrisburg.
In late June 1974, Lark, at age 69, shocked the county Republican organization when he told members of the party's executive committee on the eve of the party's biennial convention that he would not seek re-election to the chairmanship. His choice for a successor was Paul G. Ruane, 41, of Shamokin, who was then serving his fifth two-year term as a member of the state House of Representatives.
Ruane reportedly didn't want the party position, but Lark and other top Republicans pleaded with him to take it. The following day, the party's full county committee ratified the choice by acclamation.
At the time of the Republican succession, Ruane was already the Republican nominee for a sixth term, and was considered an overwhelming favorite. His Democratic opponent was Joseph P. Bradley Jr., of Mount Carmel.
The political capital Ruane built over 10 years as a legislator dissipated - practically overnight - once he accepted the Republican party chairmanship. In fact, that decision led to his defeat by Bradley in November.
As the general election campaign got under way, Watergate and the recent resignation of President Richard M. Nixon was on everyone's mind. So was the energy crisis and the sagging economy. It quickly became obvious that 1974 was going to be a tough year for Republicans, not only nationwide, but in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp was cruising to a second term.
As is normal in any campaign in which an incumbent is a candidate for re-election, Ruane's public record was a principal issue. Bradley charged that Ruane presided over "10 years of inactivity" in which no progress had occurred to solve the area's economic problems or to advance the proposed construction of an interstate connector.
Ruane would have likely been able to overcome these charges and the general dissatisfaction with Republicans if the chairmanship had not been hanging around his neck like an albatross. "A state legislator represents all the people," Bradley proclaimed in an October newspaper advertisement. "To head or to represent?" Bradley then asked. "To head AND to represent is impossible."
Bradley's argument was that a political party chairmanship and elective office were incompatible because an officeholder should be striving to serve the interests of all his constituents, not just one group. It turned out most people in the district agreed. Even worse for Ruane, he had to face constant whisperings that he was merely a "front man," and Lark continued to run the party.
On election day, Bradley defeated Ruane by a margin of 1,300. Ruane never held office again, though he tried unsuccessfully in 1979 to win a Republican nomination for county commissioner.