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Dems, GOP Pick 10th Nominee For County Common Pleas Seat

Mel Evans

Allegheny County voters, who already faced the daunting prospect of electing nine judges to the Court of Common Pleas, now have two more names to choose from this November. Democrats and Republicans alike scrambled to find a nominee for a 10th seat before a Sept. 13 deadline, and they chose Magistrate District Judge Tom Caulfield and attorney Richard Hosking, respectively.

Both men ran unsuccessfully for judgeships in the spring but got a second chance after Common Pleas Judge Guido DeAngelis announced his resignation last month. Caulfield finished 10th in the Democratic field — just out of the running for one of the nine seats available at the time. Hosking, though he is the Republican pick this fall, appeared on only the Democratic ballot this spring, when he finished 36th out of 39 candidates. (Judicial candidates are allowed to cross-file and run under either party’s banner regardless of party affiliation.)

Both candidates have a stamp of approval from the Allegheny County Bar Association, which ranked Hosking as “recommended” and Caulfield as “highly recommended” earlier this year.

Caulfield is a magistrate district judge east of Pittsburgh. His selection on Sunday came as a result of an Allegheny County Democratic Committee special-election nomination process, in which the officers of the party’s various ward and local committees voted for their pick. Out of 397 eligible officers, 233 cast ballots: Caulfield trounced his only competitor, Alyssa Cowan, by a margin of 204 to 29.

Party insiders say the narrow field — after a primary in which dozens ran — reflects a few factors. Many considered Caulfield a strong favorite. He had already been endorsed by the Democratic committee earlier this year, and as the 10th-place finisher, he could plausibly argue that he would have won the seat had it been on the ballot then. 

“A number of the officers that voted would say, ‘You finished 10th — aren’t you automatically the guy?’" Caulfield said after his win. "And more than a few said that if [the nominee] wasn’t me, it would be a slap in the face to voters. I think that went a long way: Nobody wanted to disenfranchise the voters in the May primary.”

But there was also concern about the party’s long-controversial practice of seeking a fee from those seeking the committee’s consideration. When the party endorsed judicial candidates for the nine seats open in the spring, it charged hopefuls $8,000 to seek the endorsement. Paying the fee wasn’t necessary to appear on the ballot, or to win, in the primary: An endorsement merely reflects the choice of party insiders, and voters can make up their own minds. But in the context of a special election, the party’s choice has far more impact: It determines whether a candidate gets on the ballot as a Democrat at all.

Caulfield paid the $8,000 fee twice, once for the primary and once in the fall. Cowan, who represents the county’s Children Youth and Families office, chose not to seek the endorsement in the spring. (She finished 12th, less than 1,600 votes behind Caulfield.) She said she decided “that if I ran again, I would seek the endorsement,” but the $8,000 cost “affects the kind of attorney who seeks the endorsement. I think the fee definitely locks out a number of candidates, and the committee needs to take a close look at that.” 

Eileen Kelly, who chairs the county Democrats, said the $8,000 level was “fair and consistent” with what the party had charged in the spring, and in previous years. She said she had heard complaints from “maybe a couple candidates, but that’s it.”

And she argued that the county party offers endorsement-seeking candidates a better deal than they'd get in Philadelphia. Philadelphia does not charge to seek an endorsement, but those who receive one are expected to pay for a share of party operations that can amount to $35,000. 

Kelly said that, “To me, $8,000 is a bargain to run for a position like judge,” which comes with a 10-year term.

The Republican nomination process, meanwhile, was much quieter. Hosking was chosen by the chair, vice chair and secretary of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. Chairman Sam DeMarco said the party simply didn’t have the time to assemble a field of candidates and hold a full nominating convention to chose among them. 

“If I had a number of nominees and at least 15 days, I would have brought in the county committee” to decide, said DeMarco. But with parties given only until Sept. 13 to make a choice, Republicans used an expedited process that involved only its top officers.

Hosking has been an attorney in the area for four decades and a former partner at K&L Gates, with extensive experience in business law. “He’s extremely respected by attorneys on both sides of the aisle,” said DeMarco. 

This year’s election is Nov. 2.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
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