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Democratic candidates for top state court tap cash advantage, plunge into TV airwaves


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Campaign ads in the multimillion-dollar race for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court won't get any more polite than these.

All three Democratic candidates aired their first TV commercials this week, drawing cash from the huge financial advantage that labor organizations and Philadelphia trial lawyers have provided, while the Republican trio held off.

The spots are designed to introduce the candidates, all lower-court judges who aren't household names, and cover a lot of complicated ground in 30 seconds. They emphasize the candidates' solid track records, good character and positive ratings from a state bar panel, while music plays in the background.

There is no fist-pounding or negative language — and no mention of the GOP team at all.

Still, each ad has its unique style and seeks to define the candidates in ways they believe will sway the small proportion of voters expected to cast ballots in the Nov. 3 election.

David Wecht, a Superior Court judge based in Pittsburgh, implicates the scandal-stained Supreme Court in making integrity the focus of his ad that depicts him with his family, in a courtroom and on a street talking to some police officers. A female narrator interjects that Wecht is "the only candidate with a plan to reform our courts," even though most of the other candidates also have said reform should be a priority.

"My parents taught me about playing fair and following the rules," he says in the ad. "We're teaching those values to our kids because nothing's more important than honesty and integrity."

Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty has no speaking role in his ad. Rather, it shows him alone in courthouse-like settings and shaking hands with a group of adults. A male narrator summarizes his 14-year career in the state's largest court system, where he is now oversees the trial division.

"A former major-crimes prosecutor, a respected defense attorney and chief of the family court, Dougherty led critical reforms, saving taxpayers millions. Dougherty reduced repeat juvenile offenders, cut the number of kids in foster care in half and he'll expand the veterans' court," the narrator says.

Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, who put up her first ad Thursday in the Pittsburgh market, employs a point-counterpoint approach in which she responds to comments by ordinary people.

A man in the ad says he wants "a judge who understands regular people." Donohue responds, "I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad was a coal miner, my mom a factory seamstress."

"I want a judge with integrity," says a woman carrying a baby.

"Me too, and that's why I'm running," Donohue pipes back. "It's time to bring integrity back to the Supreme Court."

The nonpartisan tone could fade once the Republican nominees — Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Adams County Judge Mike George — go on TV and the Democrats no longer control the airwaves.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said judicial campaign ads tend to be more positive than their non-judicial counterparts, but the high-stakes Supreme Court race could produce surprises.

"When push comes to shove ... it's going to be very tempting" for a candidate to go negative, he said.

All six candidates have pledged in writing to follow Pennsylvania Bar Association advertising guidelines that promote "fair and dignified" campaigns. For those who might push the envelope in the heat of the final weeks of the campaign, the bar association has a system in place for settling complaints.

Judicial candidates may not be allowed to take off the gloves, but some may try to loosen the laces.

Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at

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