PMC in the News: Westmoreland judicial candidates spent $750K through spring primary election

Trib Live 
June 24, 2019

The six candidates who ran for two open judicial seats on the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas spent more than $750,000 combined through early June.

Campaign finance reports filed last week in Harrisburg detailed candidate spending and revealed the growing cost to run for judge in Westmoreland County.

Attorney Mike Stewart II won nominations in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in May. Jessica Rafferty, a lawyer based in Greensburg, secured the second Democratic nomination, and state Rep. Justin Walsh won a spot on the fall ballot as a Republican.

Those three candidates will run in November.

Stewart and Rafferty also were the top spenders in the primary. Stewart spent more than $242,000. Rafferty’s financial reports from the start of January through the first week in June listed more than $213,000 in expenses. Walsh’s campaign spent more than $57,500 during the primary season.

A majority of the money raised for the Stewart and Rafferty campaigns came from personal loans and gifts from family members, according to their financial reports.

Democrat Matt Schimizzi spent about $140,000 for his campaign. Republican Kyle Baxter listed nearly $88,000 in campaign expenses from January through early June. Republican Wayne McGrew, who finished fifth in the Republican primary and last in the Democratic race, spent the least during the campaign with just more than $18,000 in expenses listed.

Maida Milone, president of the Philadelphia-based advocacy group Pennsylvania for Modern Courts, said campaign spending in judicial races is a growing problem that could negatively impact the courts and potentially limit the field of candidates seeking office.

“It undermines the confidence of judges once they are on the bench,” Milone said. “One solution is an appointment system that takes the money out of the process.”

Pennsylvania for Modern Courts has pressed for the creation of a statewide nominating commission that would evaluate candidates for judicial vacancies on appellate courts and make recommendations to fill those positions. It’s a system Milone said would also work for judges at the Common Pleas level.

Westmoreland County’s judicial races have become more expensive over the past decade. In 2015, nine candidates seeking three court vacancies spent a combined $1.2 million during the race. In 2017, three candidates seeking one opening spent more than a quarter-million dollars in that year’s primary.

Joyce Novotny-Prettiman, president of the Westmoreland County Bar Association, said the local lawyers group has not staked out a position on the issue of spending by candidates in a local judicial race.

Milone said the levels of spending in Westmoreland County and throughout the state keep potentially well-qualified candidates from seeking judicial positions.

“I do see it as a barrier,” Milone said. “The costs to run for judge is rising all the time. The money is just increasing.”

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