Local Democrats hit bottom
History of a sort was made in Tuesday's primary election, but it's not the kind of history worth celebrating.
It was the first legislative primary in at least 80 years - and possibly ever - that there was no Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives on the local ballot.
Quite a change of fortune for Democrats in the Shamokin-Mount Carmel area, which has produced two Democratic House members who served for 30 years: (John F. Stank from 1932 to 1956 and 1959 to 1964) and Robert Belfanti (1980-2010).
Chris Pfaff filed as a Democratic candidate, but Commonwealth Court ruled April 4 that he failed to obtain the required 300 signatures for the ballot.
So, when it came to that race, the ballot was bare, although Democratic voters had the option of writing in a candidate. But the response of 237 Democrats in Northumberland County was to write in incumbent Republican Kurt Masser. So much for giving voters a choice. So much for giving democracy a chance.
Belfanti, once deemed to be "unbeatable," got many a free ride over his 15 terms in office, and now it appears the same benefit may be accruing to Masser.
Proclaiming that democracy is dead might be overly dramatic, but it's hard to be optimistic about its vital signs.
Back in March, before it was known that Pfaff was going to file for the Democratic nomination, Roger Babnew admitted no candidates came forward for the House positions for the 107th and 108th districts. He said it was embarrassing the party didn't have candidates.
I'm tempted to say, "There, there, Roger, it's not your fault," but he doesn't deserve it. At best, he merits a "There, there, Roger, it's not JUST your fault." The days of powerful party chairmen are over, but there should be plenty of active party people who care about recruiting candidates.
The problem is, no matter how hard Democratic leaders tried to recruit a House candidate, there are not a lot of incentives at their disposal. Even if persuaded someone to run, they can't promise the financial resources it would take to make a credible campaign against a somewhat-entrenched incumbent. So, I guess there really is plenty of fault to go around.
But it makes you wonder just what motivates the local politicos of today.
The 107th District was served by a long-time Democratic incumbent as recently as four years ago, and under the right circumstances (credible candidate, level playing field), a House race here could be highly competitive.
Pennsylvania Democrats have high hopes of winning the governorship this year, but even if that happens, the change of party in the executive mansion probably won't amount to a hill of beans since the Republicans will most likely retain control of the House and Senate. The Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee is short-sighted for not putting more effort into recruiting candidates and then helping to fund campaigns in districts like ours. Such help was non-existent two years ago when Ted Yeager ran against Masser.
Aside from party involvement, or lack thereof, it's a sad commentary that there are apparently no Democrats in the 107th District who possess sufficient ambition, courage or plain old-fashioned civic-mindedness to become a serious candidate. Credit to Pfaff for at least wanting to give the voters a choice, but there is no way the candidacy of someone who fails to gather 300 valid signatures can ever be considered "serious."
No one - not Belfanti in years past and not Masser today - deserves to win election without being challenged on the issues.
Republicans in decades past were lax in not doing a better job finding and supporting candidates to challenge Belfanti at the ballot box. Through their inaction, Republicans acquiesced in draping Belfanti in the mantle of invincibility.
Now Democrats, in conceding the most influential position in local politics to Republicans, are continuing the pattern.
(Jake Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)