Running for Judge in Philly – Who Gets Paid?

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BY DAVID LYNN
Every two years, Philadelphia voters go to the polls in small numbers, and cast ballots for individuals they barely know anything about. These individuals become 1st Judicial District judges serving in Philadelphia County courts, with great power over peoples’ lives.

Although the city of Philadelphia has a two-party system in theory, the only race that matters during a judicial election cycle is the Democratic primary, held in odd-numbered years, usually in May. In most cases, voters may vote for more than one judicial candidate per office, further adding to the confusion.

There is no surefire path to victory. But ballot position matters, endorsements matter and get-out the-vote efforts matter. Since judicial candidates run citywide, these races can be complicated and expensive.

Some individuals and organizations have set themselves up as “experts” for getting elected judge in Philadelphia. Although campaign finance laws are only loosely enforced in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, reports still get filed, and we can examine who got paid what kind of money to assist judicial candidates.

For the purposes of this article, we limited our investigation to the 2017 Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court judicial race on the Democratic side. We also discounted any expense of less than $2,000. The data come from Commonwealth of Pennsylvania campaign-finance reports from the first, second and third cycles of 2017.

There were 27 candidates on the Democratic ballot for Common Pleas Court judge. Nine survived the Democratic primary and continued to the general election. The candidates are listed with their vote totals (highest first) as follows:

There were six candidates for Municipal Court judge on the Democratic ballot. Voters could vote for up to two candidates.

Candidates were allowed to register for more than one office. Several individuals ran for both Common Pleas and Municipal Court.

Because so few voters pay attention to the judicial races, candidates must compete aggressively in the scant pool of primary votes. A cottage industry has sprung up to help candidates do just that.

Department of State data show who was paid for consulting, get-out-the-vote and other activities. No exhaustive exhaustive list exist of individuals and organizations that receive funds from candidates. But one can read much in the data about who the major players are and what their impact is.

Taking a Ride on Big Players’ Ballots

Perhaps the biggest player in the Democratic primary is the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee itself. It appears to have taken money from nine Common Pleas candidates and two Municipal Court candidates. With the exception of Vincent Melchiorre, who donated $15,000, all the other candidates gave $35,000.

It is interesting to note that paying money to Philadelphia Democratic City Committee is not a surefire way to get elected. Deborah Cianfrani, Lucretia Clemons, Shanese Johnson, Zac Shaffer and Judge Stella Tsai won; but David Conroy, Judge Vincent Melchiorre, Crystal Powell and Judge Daniel R. Sulman lost.

Two Municipal Court candidates gave large amounts to the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee: Marissa Brumbach and George Twardy. Brumbach won while Twardy lost.

Candidates also differed greatly on how this expense was labeled. Some simply called it “GOTV” while others were quite blunt, labeling it as “Endorsement” or, in one case, “Endorsement/Assessment.”

At a lower tier, some judicial candidates took a ride on the campaigns of more-prominent citywide candidates, in particular, entrants in the hotly contested district attorney race.

The following candidates for Common Pleas Court gave to Citizens for Rich Negrin: Deborah Canty, Leonard Deutchman, Vikki Kristiansson, Rania Major, Henry McGregor Sias and Crystal Powell. Canty and Kristiansson won. Most of the candidates gave $5,000, although Powell only gave $2,500. Marissa Brumbach, who was running for Municipal Court, gave Negrin $3,000.

Some of the same candidates hedged their bets by giving to Joe for Philly, the PAC for DA candidate Joe Khan. Common Pleas Court candidates who gave to his campaign, most likely to be listed on his sample ballot, were as follows: Leonard Deutchman, Leon Goodman, Vikki Kristiansson, John Macoretta and Rania Major. Only Kristiansson won.

The going rate for Khan’s ballot-listing privilege seems to have been $5,000, although Leon Goodman and Municipal Court candidate Marissa Brumbach both paid only $2,500.

The Busy World of Campaign Consultants

Then come the freelance PACs and consultants.

A curious big player in the race was an entity called Black Voter Block PAC. This supposed PAC received $82,335 in 13 contributions from the following Common Pleas candidates: Lucretia Clemons, Judge Vincent Furlong, Leon Goodman, Vikki Kristiansson, Brian McLaughlin and Judge Vincent Melchiorre. On the Municipal Court side, Marissa Brumbach gave $3,000 to this PAC.

All PACS that participate in judicial races must be registered with the Department of State, but Right to Know requests filed with DOS did not turn up any such PAC. In several instances, candidates simply did not list an address or listed “Information Requested” for an address for this expenditure. One listed the address of a hotel near the airport; another listed a residential address in Chester, Pa.

Black Voter Block PAC scored well: five of its seven clients won judgeships.

A number of PACs act as vehicles for the individual consultant who runs them. This seems to be the case with Liberty Square PAC, chaired by Charles Finney. His PAC received funds from the following Common Pleas Court candidates: Deborah Cianfrani, Vikki Kristiansson, Judge Vincent Melchiorre, Zac Shaffer, Judge Daniel Sulman and Judge Stella Tsai.

In addition, Finney’s for-profit enterprise appeared in expenditures reported by Marissa Brumbach, Deborah Cianfrani, Lucretia Clemons, David Conroy, Henry McGregor Sias, Judge Vincent Melchiorre, Judge Daniel R. Sulman, Judge Stella Tsai and George Twardy.

Collectively, Finney and his PAC collected $210,000 in large-scale contributions from 11 Philadelphia judicial candidates, six of whom won.

Finney’s going rate for 1st Judicial District hopefuls was apparently $20,000. Brumbach paid only $15,000 to the PAC.

Edgar “Sonny” Campbell, Democratic 4th Ward leader, is treasurer of Genesis IV PAC. The following candidates for Common Pleas Court paid Genesis IV PAC $25,000 for consulting, GOTV, or other similar expenses: Deborah Cianfrani, David Conroy, Lucretia Clemons, Shanese Johnson, Judge Vincent Melchiorre, Zac Shaffer, Judge Daniel Sulman and Judge Stella Tsai. Municipal Court candidates Marissa Brumbach and George Twardy also gave the PAC $25,000 each. Genesis IV’s victory margin was an impressive 6 for 8.

Some consultants get paid directly without filtering money through a PAC. This was the case with M. Joseph “Ozzy” Myers. He was paid a total of $24,000 by the following three Common Pleas Court candidates: Vikki Kristiansson, John Macoretta and Zac Shaffer. Municipal Court candidate George Twardy also paid Myers $20,000 each.

Another active player is John Cooper, a consultant whose address was occasionally given as 1719 Spring Garden Street (close to, if not at, IBEW Local 98 headquarters). Cooper obtained fees for consulting, GOTV and petitions.

Cooper was paid more than $41,000 by the following Common Pleas Court candidates: Deborah Cianfrani, Judge Vincent Furlong, Leon Goodman, Vikki Kristiansson, John Macoretta and Zac Shaffer. George Twardy, candidate for Municipal Court, also paid Cooper $4,428 for petitions. Overall, Cooper batted 4 for 7.

Readers of DOS data should be cautioned that, like any massive database, it is prone to data-entry glitches, on the part both of filing candidates and committees, as well as DOS employees. Database updates are ongoing. It typically takes months to confirm the accuracy of all filings, especially if they have not been previously challenged.

Data for the fourth and fifth cycle 2017 have not been published at the time of this writing, and the deadline for 2017 cycle 6 has just passed. But in a few months, savvy observers will be able to see if there were any other major expenditures by candidates after the primary for GOTV efforts.

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