Mahoning Cty. Dems overhaul candidate endorsement process

The Mahoning County Democratic Party elected Joyce Kale-Pesta as its chairwoman to be more of a caretaker and experienced hand during the challenging 2020 election.

She wants to focus the party’s attention on the numerous county elections next year and have the presidential race be secondary to that, which is a good idea as the latter is largely out of the hands of the local party.

But if Democrats thought she’d keep the status quo, they were greatly mistaken.

Kale-Pesta, widely respected among local Democrats, was the only candidate seeking to replace David Betras as party leader. The formal vote to select her to fill the term that expires in June 2022 was last week.

At that meeting and with the support of Kale-Pesta, the party also voted to make a significant overhaul to its endorsement process – and it wasn’t without some controversy and concern.

The party voted to eliminate primary-election endorsements for open seats, and to automatically endorse incumbent Democrats in primaries in races – primarily for county, Youngstown and Struthers elected positions – unless a majority of committee members sign a letter asking for a meeting to reconsider backing an incumbent.

The thought behind not endorsing for open seats and automatically backing incumbents seems inconsistent.

The party should either get rid of endorsements altogether or keep them as they were.

This process allows the same entrenched officeholders to have the party’s support unless they do something so egregious that causes a majority of central committee members to sign a petition urging someone to not be endorsed.

First, there’s nothing in the party’s constitution to determine what could cause the reconsideration of an endorsement. It could be something as simple as not liking the person or as severe as a criminal conviction.

Also, there are about 200 precinct committee members. Good luck trying to get about 100 of them to sign something calling for a meeting.

As an aside, Mahoning County Republicans don’t have primary-election endorsements as more often than not they either have only one candidate running for a seat or can’t find someone for every position. In this year’s elections in Youngstown and Struthers, Republicans were able to only field one candidate for 20 available elected positions in the two cities.

Endorsements by Mahoning Democrats during the primary were returned in 2010 by Betras after an absence of more than 15 years.

If the party had the current rules in place, there would have been a number of changes to endorsements over the years – some which may not have been so bad.

In 2010, the party backed Carol Rimedio-Righetti against incumbent county Commissioner David Ludt in the primary. She won the primary and the general election. Under the existing policy, Ludt would have been endorsed.

In 2012, the party chose not to endorse two longtime county incumbents: Engineer Richard A. Marsico and Prosecutor Paul J. Gains.

Marsico, a party loyalist if there ever was one, was tossed aside in favor of Patrick T. Ginnetti. Marsico opted to not seek re-election after failing to get the endorsement.

Gains chose to fight a bitter battle with Jay Macejko, who was the party’s endorsed candidate. Gains won the primary and the election.

In 2014, the party didn’t endorse incumbent Probate Court Judge Mark Belinky, who finished last among three candidates in that process. There was an ongoing criminal investigation into Belinky that eventually led to a conviction, his resignation and withdrawal from the race.

But who’s to say that enough central committee members would have organized in time to call a meeting to reconsider endorsing Belinky? Also, once he withdrew from the primary, the party couldn’t have endorsed someone else.

Susan Maruca, who won the endorsement and the primary, lost the general election to Robert N. Rusu, an independent appointed by the Republican governor in June 2014 to fill Belinky’s unexpired term.

The party’s track record in Youngstown races has been largely poor and it hasn’t been much better in Struthers. If Democrats were going to change anything, I would have suggested eliminating endorsements in city races.

The decision to not endorse in open seats also hurts those who have given their time, effort and money to the party. They work hard and end up with nothing in return.

The party was fine when it eliminated endorsements in the mid-1990s though it can be argued it was weaker in terms of influence when David Ditzler and then Lisa Antonini led the party.

Betras’ decision to bring back endorsements gave the party more power over primary elections even though it didn’t always work. Also, there were numerous Democrats, including some high-profile ones, who ignored the endorsements and supported the other candidates.

This new process seems like a rubber stamp for incumbents and a closed door for others.