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Clout: The Geator's choice for Supreme Court?

Clout: The Geator's choice for Supreme Court?

WE'VE HAD our eye on Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto for the past few weeks, ever since he secured his place on the Supreme Court ballot in the upcoming - and historic - November election.

Historic because there are three vacancies on the Supreme Court for the first time since 1704. No, that's not a typo. That's 311 years.

Panepinto is not exactly a household name, so we were a bit surprised to see him deliver about 30,000 signatures and become the first independent to get on the ballot for the state's highest court since 1993.

That's impressive, because the ballot-access process is stacked against independents. Democrats and Republicans don't like outsiders meddling in their elections. It makes them feel . . . uncomfortable. Like a nerd who can psychologically devastate the schoolyard bullies with a pithy insult.

Anyway, Panepinto, who has previously run as an unendorsed Republican for the Supreme Court and Commonwealth Court, basically said "screw this" (our words, not his) and decided to circumvent the system this year.

"It's a political process that requires you to kiss the ring of various party leaders," Panepinto said. "I said to myself, 'For what purpose does a judge have to be Democrat or Republican?' Why can't I just go to the people? I've always been a people person."

Hey, we're all for this. Rage against the machine, judge. Spit on the rings.

On top of that, Panepinto has been endorsed by Jerry Blavat. The Geator with the Heater! The Boss with the Hot Sauce! The Man with the Plan! The . . . you get the idea.

"I'm tired of Republican and Democrat. I'm tired of that term for judges," said Panepinto, 66, who lives in the city's Greenhill Farms section. "The experience and integrity matter, not the party."

Stalking horse?

Now, this is where it gets interesting.

We got a call from a source who has served in the trenches of Philadelphia judicial elections. There was a theory to be explored: Is Panepinto a stalking horse for his Democratic colleague, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty?

The theory went like this: Panepinto, who is running as an anti-abortion, limited-government conservative, would siphon votes away from the Republican candidates and help Dougherty - brother of Local 98 electricians union boss John Dougherty - land a seat on the Supreme Court.

That would be a classic Johnny Doc move, we thought. It'd probably be fairly easy to find his fingerprints if he was behind it, too.

So we got Panepinto's nomination papers from the Department of State in Harrisburg and looked for a smoking gun.

One of Panepinto's circulators is Jeff Felder, a former aide to Democratic City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Felder once chaired the West Philadelphia Democratic Club, a political committee affiliated with Blackwell that received $30,000 from Local 98 and $84,215 from then-mayoral-candidate Tom Knox in 2007.

Interesting that he's backing a conservative judicial candidate. Felder, a consultant, was paid $1,000 by Blackwell's campaign committee as recently as March.

Another Panepinto circulator is Kevin Fassett, a former Democratic ward leader who was an aide to the late Democratic state Sen. Hardy Williams who has contributed money to Williams' son, state Sen. Anthony Williams.

There are a couple other Democratic connections, but we figure if Johnny Doc was behind Panepinto's candidacy, the signs would have been more obvious. Doc's as subtle as a steamroller.

When we asked Panepinto about his Democratic support, he acknowledged that, sure, he has some. He has longtime friends in both parties, he said, and he cross-filed as Democrat and Republican when he was first elected to Common Pleas Court in 1991.

"I've known Jeff Felder for years and Kevin [Fassett] for years. And it's not just them. There are many people who helped out," Panepinto said. "I went to them and asked, 'Would you please help me get on the ballot?' "

We reached out to John Dougherty to see if he thought Panepinto would help or hurt his brother, who is running with two other Democrats and three Republicans. (We'd heard that some folks in the Dougherty camp are concerned that Panepinto might actually be a liability for Dougherty, because now there are two Philadelphians on the ballot.)

Frank Keel, a spokesman for the Kevin Dougherty campaign, gave us this statement:

"Judge Dougherty has been working tirelessly, traveling to every corner of the state, visiting farm shows, attending picnics and meeting as many people as he can to earn every vote he can. It does not matter who else is in the race. He is focused on his own campaign and winning every available vote."

Which doesn't say much. But our conclusion, after a fair amount of research, is that Panepinto is the real deal, not a party puppet. He has experience in civil, criminal and family court, and he's recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which said he "can meet the intellectual demands of a Supreme Court justice."

But most importantly, he has the Geator's support. Blavat says he's known the Panepinto family since the 1960s, when he ran a record hop at the Chez Vous ballroom and would take his crew to the Panepinto's Italian restaurant afterward.

"They had the best clams casino," Blavat said. "They would bake them right inside a baking dish."

As for Paul Panepinto's candidacy, Blavat said: "He's just a good Philadelphian. He knows the city and is just a good guy. I love this guy."

There you have it. If the Geator says he's OK, we guess he's OK.

Maybe having some political independence on the Supreme Court wouldn't be a bad thing.

 

"Clout: The Geator's choice for Supreme Court?"  Philly.com. The Inquirer | Daily News, 4 Sept. 2015 http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20150904_Clout__The_Geator_s_choice_for_Supreme_Court_.html (accessed September 4, 2015)

 

The Geator's choice for Supreme Court?