Pennsylvania Republicans are poised to select a new leader in Hershey this Saturday, and early indications are that the fight to replace Val DiGiorgio could be bruising.
DiGiorgio stepped down last month amid allegations that he had texted sexually explicit messages to a Republican candidate for Philadelphia City Council. In stepping down, DiGiorgio said the messages were consensual and reports to the contrary were "gross mischaracterizations."
But the controversy, and a separate allegation, continue to shadow one contender to replace him: Bernadette “Bernie” Comfort, who served as DiGiorgio’s vice chair and became acting chair after his departure.
In a pre-July 4 display of fireworks, Comfort and a Lawrence County Republican Lynne Ryan traded emails about what Comfort knew about the texting allegations – as well as a separate complaint of sexual harassment within the state party staff.
In a June 30 email, Ryan asked what Comfort knew about the texting allegations and, “why didn’t you take action at that time to protect our party?”
“Even more disturbing is a narrative in which a [party staffer] is reported to have been the object of unwanted sexual advancements” by another staffer, and that DiGiorgio “was unwilling to address or remedy the matter," Ryan wrote.
Republican Party spokesman Jason Gottesman declined to comment on the harassment allegation, saying, “if it was a personnel matter, it would be confidential,” and Ryan said she didn’t want to divulge details that might expose the victim.
But in a July 1 email she sent to state committee people, Comfort acknowledged that there had been a “staffer personnel issue” which she said "was handled by the former chairman privately, without telling me about it. … As it was a personnel matter, I will not comment any further.”
As for DiGiorgio, Comfort wrote that when he “informed me of his behavior, I immediately advocated for him to resign.” She said she had no advance knowledge of either situation, and that “anyone who says otherwise is lying.”
Comfort did not respond to efforts to reach her by phone or email. But she has long been active promoting women in politics. During a stint in Pittsburgh, she headed up the Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University, and has served on a state commission for women. She's also worked on recruiting female candidates, an initiative in which she partnered with Christine Toretti, a Republican national committeewoman from western Pennsylvania who has strongly urged the party to put forward more female voices.
Ryan says she isn’t satisfied with Comfort's answers.
“I was a delegate for Donald Trump, and my concern is that this is going to put a black eye on the 2020 campaign," she said. "And we don’t need that."
As for Comfort’s response, Ryan said, “To the people I’ve spoken with, it raises more concerns than it answers. If she didn’t know, she was either clueless or a puppet.”
The allegations are part of the backdrop for Saturday’s vote, which will take place Saturday afternoon at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, a regular GOP retreat. Comfort is likely to face a spirited challenge from committee members supporting Lawrence Tabas, a longtime party attorney who challenged DiGiorgio for the chair in 2017.
That fight was fractious – DiGiorgio won by a two-vote margin of 173 to 171 – and it took place just months after the Pennsylvania GOP scored huge wins by delivering the state for President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
It's a darker picture for the party this time. Energized Democrats held onto the state’s other U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion last year, while making significant gains in Congressional and legislative elections.
The state is critical to Trump’s re-election bid next year. Campaign officials met with DiGiorgio earlier this year to discuss the 2020 election. More recently, several of Trump's inner circle – including son Donald Jr. – have weighed in to endorse Comfort. (“They are being misinformed by swamp rats,” Ryan contends.)
But for anxious Republicans, one consolation may be that Democrats struggled with similar issues last year, and went on to rack up big wins anyway.
In early 2018, the state Democratic Party's then-chair Marcel Groen resigned under pressure from Gov. Tom Wolf amid concerns that Groen did not take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously enough. Groen was replaced by Allegheny County’s Nancy Patton Mills last year.
If Comfort wins the chair this weekend, both of Pennsylvania’s major parties will be led by women, who took power in the wake of controversy involving male predecessors.