The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

May 29, 2013

Ballot starts to firm up but we have to fill it out

By Nick Hildebrand
Herald News Editor/Weekends

---- — With last Tuesday’s primary election out of the way, the stage is set for the November general election, an “off-year” event that will mean more to our quality of life than the over-hyped partisan warfare that we’re mired in day after day.

The top race in the county in November is the same as it was in the primary: Mercer County Common Pleas Court judge.

In county government, a judge is one step below God, and that’s just an abstract concept, since God hasn’t issued written orders in a long, long time. Judges serve 10-year terms, make great money by local standards, get to wear a great costume to work everyday and wield, along with a good bit of power, a gavel.

A hard-fought primary produced Republican nominee Daniel P. Wallace of Greenville and on the Democratic side Victor Heutsche. Both garnered clear majorities in their respective parties, an indication that even though the office is non-partisan, the process of getting there sure looks kind of partisan.

Judicial races are tough to follow and there’s many who argue that elections are one of the worst ways to choose a judge. Candidates don’t usually talk about how they’ll wield that gavel and voters are often left choosing between resumes and reputations.

A close second on the county ballot, at least for local political watchers, is the contest for Mercer County Treasurer between incumbent Republican Ginny Steese Richardson and Democratic challenger Marci Radcliffe.

The treasurer does just about what you would expect her to: Watching the county’s cash coming in and going out; investing some of it; balancing the checkbook; and selling a variety of licenses and permits.

Both women have experience in banking and are connected politically - Richardson, who has held the post for 20 years also chairs the county Republican party and Radcliffe co-chairs for the Democrats.

That’s ironic, since the treasurer’s is one of several county row offices that perform specific functions, with little, if any policymaking role. There’s not really a Democratic way to sell a dog license, or a Republican method to add up tax receipts.

Political affiliation and  generational and geographical differences - Richardson hails from Pine Township and Radcliffe from the Shenango Valley - are all going to be factors in this race.

There’s another significant county office on the ballot, one that’s likely going to stay in incumbent hands. County Controller Tom Amundsen is running unopposed.

That’s something that shouldn’t happen in a democracy. Not because Amundsen is doing a bad job, but because uncontested races mock the idea that we have a choice, that if we don’t like the way things are done we can just vote them out in the next election. We can only do that if someone is running against them.

Local ballots in the townships, boroughs and even cities of the county were littered with uncontested races in the primary, a situation that will be repeated in the fall election.

Turnout for off-year primaries and elections has been falling for years, dipping to just over 20 percent last week. There are a lot of reasons for that, too many to go into here. Political participation in local elections is never going to be as great as it is in a presidential election year or even a mid-term election.

The national media pretends local elections don’t exist and will only deign to take notice of them if there’s a curiosity factor: “Transexual midget runs for mayor of tiny town” or “Albino stripper seeks seat on rural school board.”

But a successful, 30-year campaign to devolve power from the federal and state level has made the work that the people we elect to municipal or school offices do even more challenging and important. These mostly unpaid local officeholders are who catches the stuff that rolls downhill when well-compensated politicians in D.C. and Harrisburg cut funding and expand programs.

That’s why it is so important that we have good choices when it comes to electing local officeholders – and why the situation we now find ourselves in is so sad.

But that situation is not unredeemable. The countywide offices discussed above aren’t likely to be influenced by independent candidacies or write-in campaigns. But the hundreds of town council, supervisor and school board positions that are uncontested (or so undesirable that no one is running at all) can be decided by those non-traditional means.

A few dozen write-in votes or the introduction of an independent candidate to the ballot can really shake up the status quo in most  county precincts.

The primary may have partially set the ballot, but we fill it out.

There’s still time to make this year’s election as interesting as the stakes - or at least give the voters a reason or two beyond the marquee races to do their civic duty.

Nick Hildebrand is The Herald’s News Editor/Weekends. Contact him at