GOP Maneuvering Leaves Cummings Outside
A few more weeks like this last one and this Lackawanna County commissioners race could start resembling the crazy one in 2007. Monday, Lackawanna County commissioner candidates Chris Chermak and Mike Giannetta registered a joint campaign committee to raise money, formalizing their expected pairing as a Republican ticket. Their pairing also creates a serious threat to the re-election of incumbent Republican Commissioner Laureen Cummings. Random Notes reported the possibility of the ticket last week. The new duo named Keith Eckel, the former Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president and former Nationwide Mutual Insurance board chairman, as their campaign committee chairman. Tuesday, The Times-Tribune reported county chief of staff Fran Pantuso and her brother owed more than $60,000 in delinquent property taxes and trash fees for several properties they own. Also during the week, the first commercial for Democratic County Commissioner Patrick O’Malley and his running mate, Debi Domenick, appeared on a New York Post web page. (That’s common now. You find local ads on out-of-town sites.) In the commercial, O’Malley says: “You know it’s tough ... (long pause) ... not having a partner in county government. I think that a woman’s perspective would be a great opportunity, especially coming with Democratic values.” Domenick chimes in: “I get along really well with him. I know that we would work well together. I see the citizens interact with him and their response to him. I realize he has done a lot for this county.” O’Malley closes the 61-second ad: “Our team’s vision was based on listening to people. We have the power to make something great happen. Make it happen, right at that moment. And you have to do what’s best that’s going to last for decades to come.” You might think the ad’s message arrived as news to Cummings, the first woman commissioner in county history and O’Malley’s frequent partner in county government since January 2016. You would be wrong, Cummings said. She said the ad confirms she and O’Malley aren’t as tight as everyone thinks. She claimed O’Malley and his former Democratic running mate and current nemesis, Jerry Notarianni, vote together 96 percent of the time while she only votes with them about 75 percent of the time. She pointed to her vote against an O’Malley plan to charge a $5 vehicle registration fee. “I would never team up with a Democrat (on a political ticket),” she said. Cummings said Eckel’s chairmanship of the Chermak-Giannetta campaign only brings into the open — before the election this time — what Eckel and Democratic insurance executive Chuck Volpe pulled four years ago. Back then, Eckel and Volpe quietly backed Republican Bill Jones and Notarianni instead of Cummings or O’Malley. Their support for Jones and Notarianni emerged publicly only after the election. Cummings charged that Eckel, Volpe and longtime Republican operative Pat Solano met at Terry’s Diner in Moosic a couple of weeks ago to plot against her with Chermak and Giannetta. She thinks they want her gone because she’s her own woman. “I do what I feel is right for the taxpayer and not what they tell me what I have to do,” Cummings said. “I think I’ve proven I’ve been a very effective and proactive minority commissioner.” Volpe acknowledged he, Eckel, Giannetta, Chermak, Solano and someone else (we’re still trying to confirm who) met at Terry’s to discuss supporting Chermak and Giannetta. Volpe said he’s backing Notarianni and his new running mate, George Kelly, Chermak and Giannetta because they represent the best hope for competent government. Blind loyalty to party, he said, makes no sense. Electing better candidates than Cummings and O’Malley to reach good government should be the goal, Volpe said. “They need to go,” he said. “We have to, for the betterment of this area, stop this dysfunction.” O’Malley and Cummings deny dysfunction in county government. Pantuso’s debts may signal otherwise for voters. Pantuso’s ascension to chief of staff in February took months to unfold. The commissioners named her assistant chief of staff last October to learn the job and see if she would want the top job permanently. Beyond that, the county hired her for community outreach in 2012. That all means they had months, if not years, to look into her background and find any problems. Of course, they would never have had to worry about grooming Pantuso for chief of staff if O’Malley and Cummings’ original choice, Andy Wallace, had not been arrested last July for indecent assault and harassment. O’Malley angered many Democrats when he teamed with Cummings to pick Wallace over Notarianni’s choice, county Recorder of Deeds Evie Rafalko McNulty. O’Malley argues Notarianni offered to make Cummings the chairwoman of the commissioners, wanted “wholesale firings” of top staff and plotted against him. That’s why he turned to Cummings and appointed Wallace. Wallace had a far more stellar résumé than Pantuso, but either way that’s two chief of staff choices who came up problematic. This election has a way to go before it rivals the commissioner race in 2007 when incumbent Democrat Mike Washo and his running mate, Corey O’Brien, challenged Republican majority Commissioners A.J. Munchak and Bob Cordaro. An FBI investigation of the county’s workers’ compensation fund roiled that race. Repeated questions about campaign paperwork knocked Republican Commissioner Cordaro off the primary election ballot and forced him to temporarily withdraw as a candidate later. Finally, the lack of enough vote-counting machines dragged the final results out until the late afternoon of the day after the election. This race is just heating up, but the first returns signal craziness. BORYS KRAWCZENIUK, The Times-Tribune’s politics reporter, writes Random Notes.