‘This was a sham’: Lebanon Co. Republicans say party boss poisoned special election candidate selection

Downtown Lebanon, Pa. Republicans from York, Lebanon, and Dauphin Counties will convene at a nomination conference this weekend to choose their nominee for a Jan. 14th special election. The winner of that race will represent the 48th district in the state Senate. (Image from Flickr user Jon Dawson.)

Republican activists in Lebanon County are crying foul over how their local party boss has handled the candidate selection process for an upcoming special election, where voters will replace a state senator who was arrested on child porn charges.

The activists say Lebanon County GOP Chairman Casey Long hand-picked the people who will represent them at a nomination conference this weekend, violating bylaws established by the state party, they claim.

At that meeting, conferees from Lebanon, York and Dauphin counties will pick the GOP candidate to run in the Jan. 14 special election to replace Sen. Mike Folmer, who resigned last month in the wake of his arrest.

The election is expected to be an easy victory for Republicans, who outnumber Democrats by nearly 30,000 voters in the state’s 48th Senate District.

Aggrieved Republicans also say that Long imposed what amounted to a $150 fee on voters who wanted to be chosen as conferees, after he sent emails that appeared to require their attendance at a closed-door, members-only event for party donors.

“This was a sham,” said Bill Dougherty, a committee member from South Annville who unsuccessfully applied to be a conferee. “The whole process was chaos.”

Dougherty explained that the county executive committee voted overwhelmingly this month to give Long sole authority to choose Lebanon County’s 41 conferees, who will vote at the district’s nomination conference on Oct. 19.

That violated state committee bylaws that say conferees must be chosen by county committees, Dougherty and other activists say.

Dougherty and fellow committee member Gordon Tomb raised that concern with state Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas in an email Tomb sent Tuesday. 

They told Tabas, an election lawyer by trade, that “the rights of committee members were ignored and the integrity of the party was undermined,” and requested guidance on how to “challenge the selection process.”

Tabas could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

But Long roundly dismissed the complaints in an interview with the Capital-Star.

Lebanon County Committee members “did choose the conferees collectively when they voted to grant me the authority” to select them, Long said. 

A former aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, Long is currently a lobbyist at the Harrisburg-based Long, Nyquist & Associates. The firm, founded by his father, Mike Long, has deep ties to Senate Republicans.

Long said that the Lebanon GOP’s executive committee followed the same process last year, when he single-handedly chose conferees who would vote on a candidate to briefly fill former Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent’s seat in the 15th District.

“The process was one that followed the bylaws of the state and county committees and was consistent with processes we used in the past,” Long said. “It’s not like this was some novel concept.”

‘Even if there’s a perception that you have to pay, that’s a problem’

Long also rejected the notion that his selections favored voters who made generous donations to the county committee’s treasury — even though voters say that two emails he sent in September seemed to require a $150 contribution from people who wished to be selected. 

In a Sept. 28 email to county Republicans, Long asked would-be conferees to “make certain to attend any upcoming candidate events beginning with our Chairman’s Club Reception on Thursday, Oct. 10.”

He described the event in more detail in a separate email sent two days prior, on Sept. 26, when he reminded committee members that “this is a Chairman’s Club Event and if you have not joined you still have time to do so.”

Membership in the club costs $150 and will buy members and their guests spots at two annual receptions, Long explained. Donors can also pay $500 to join the Gold Club, which secures them seats at an additional dinner. 

GOP activists in Lebanon County said the messages implied there was a price to participate in the Oct. 19 nominating conference. 

“I saw the email that says ‘come to the event where you’ll see the candidates,’ but I wasn’t going to send my money,” said Pat Braden, a former county committee chair who submitted her name to become a conferee. “The state website [says] all you need to be is a registered Republican.”

Braden also saw the message as a way to raise funds for the cash-poor committee — a perception that was shared by Tomb, the committee member from North Londonderry Township.

“What came to mind immediately when I saw those emails was, ‘that’s a clever way to raise money, requiring people to join the club to hear candidates speak,’” Tomb said.

The idea that people had to pay to be considered as conferees was “completely untrue,” Long said Wednesday. Several conferees he chose are not members of the Chairman’s Club, and “nobody was required to join the club to serve as a conferee,” he said. 

He added that the Chairman’s Club dinner was open to potential conferees and candidates who were not dues-paying members of the club — a fact he said was widely known among the committee.

One government ethics expert warned that the miscommunication still could have damaged the political process if it deterred voters who hoped to serve as conferees.

“Even if there’s a perception that you have to pay, that’s a problem,” said Pat Christmas, a policy director with the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy.

The Committee of Seventy has long been critical of Pennsylvania’s special election laws, which give party officials great control in choosing the candidates who will appear on ballots. 

The events in Lebanon County, Christmas said, show what can happen when parties have broad latitude to run special election races however they see fit. 

“When parties get to decide on their own how they’re going to choose nominees, those processes don’t have to be transparent, or even include the broadest swath of party members,” Christmas said. “[That] is what we have here.”

This is not the first time Long’s fellow Republicans have publicly criticized him.

Earlier this year, Folmer and state Reps. Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan called on Long to resign, claiming Long “damaged the Republican brand” by circulating a racist mailer targeting an incumbent GOP county commissioner. Diamond is now one of several Republicans running for the GOP nomination.

Picking candidates for special elections can be a covert and complicated process. A state lawmaker wants to change that

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