Tension in Northumberland County could affect election
Historically, candidates' personalities played the major role in determining who was elected to Northumberland County row offices.
In elections that occur every four years at midpoint in the commissioner board's term, county voters, up to now, became accustomed to "nice guys" defending their turf against lesser-known "nice guys," with the status quo usually prevailing.
This year, the Northumberland County commissioners and their relationship with the individual candidates have become just as much of an issue as the individual candidates themselves.
The controversial salary cut for county officials and commissioners' expressions of support for particular candidates could make Tuesday's general election, at least in part, a referendum on the board majority.
In a new era in Northumberland County where political alliances have nothing to do with political parties and where party labels no longer mean as much, voters' impressions about how things are going at the courthouse and the administration center could determine the outcome.
Incumbency was formerly candidates' most valuable asset because public service was Job 1. County row officers were always in a position to be helpful to people on their rare visits to the courthouse, and this kindness was never forgotten. Since the row officers never had to raise taxes or make unpopular decisions, they were able to stay in voters' good graces, sometimes for decades.
Of the four offices up for election - coroner, register and recorder, controller and prothonotary/clerk of courts - it is only the controller's office that has experienced election defeats by incumbents over the past 30 years. That's because of the office's role as a "watchdog" over county finances.
This year, there are three incumbents on the ballot - Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman and Controller Tony Phillips, both Republicans, and Coroner James F. Kelley, a Democrat. Just Zimmerman is a sure bet for re-election, and that's only because she has no opposition.
Kelley and Phillips are both in competitive races. Kelley is challenged by Republican Leo J. Mirolli Jr., and Phillips is opposed by Democrat Christopher L. Grayson. Republican Justin Dunkelberger and Democrat Meg Bartos are battling to succeed Prothonotary Kathleen Wolfe Strausser, who is not seeking re-election.
The huge salary cut for county officials approved by Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy has led to a further deterioration in their relationship with incumbent row officers. Kelley and Zimmerman are among the four row officers (along with Treasurer Kevin Gilroy and Sheriff Chad Reiner) who filed a lawsuit against the commissioners to fight the cuts.
During a press conference Thursday at the county administration center, Bridy urged county residents to vote plaintiffs in the lawsuit out of office. Clausi agreed. Clausi, who was elected as a Democrat, has further injected himself into the campaign by publicly supporting Dunkelberger over Bartos.
In the Phillips-Grayson race, the commissioners' decision not to spare the controller's office from the salary cuts has been interpreted by some as Clausi's expression of approval for the job Phillips has been doing, although Phillips has frequently pointed out that the salary applies only to the office, not to him, because only the election will determine whether he is still in office in January.
What remains of Republican loyalty could be tested in the election - for Phillips, because of the salary issue, and for Dunkelberger, because of Clausi's public support and last spring's primary fight against Jamie Saleski.
Name recognition could be another factor. Up to now, Phillips and Kelley have both benefited from their last names. Phillips' great-uncle is Merle Phillips, former state representative and former commissioner and Kelley's father was the late commissioner James P. Kelley. Both relatives were extremely popular public officials. James P. Kelley never lost a county election, and, at this point in his career, his son hasn't either.
Candidates' individual messages, the prevailing political climate in the county and name recognition are all variables. Another is voter interest, or lack thereof.
In 2009, when three of these same races were unopposed, voter turnout countywide was only 25 percent. This year, three of the four are in play, and all six candidates in the contested races have conducted vigorous campaigns. Have voters been paying attention? What are they thinking? Do they care enough to vote?