JUDGE KENNETH Powell, a judge who has never been elected a judge, wants to be elected May 21, but he has some handicaps. He likes to wear bow ties, and he's a Republican with a bad ballot position.

He can ditch the bow ties during the campaign for a seat on the Court of Common Pleas (political insiders warn him voters don't like them), but he can't change his party or ballot position. He's No. 3 on the GOP line, but that hardly matters in Philly, where Dems enjoy a 6 ½-to-1 registration edge. He cross-filed on the Democratic line and drew No. 114.

At 64, with three decades of trial experience, almost four years on the bench, he's eminently qualified, but who cares about that? He doesn't have the Dem endorsement.

Powell got to the bench with bipartisan support, appointed to Municipal Court by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2009 and to Common Pleas Court by Gov. Corbett last year.

Wily political consultant Jimmy Tayoun calls Powell a "masochist" for running.

Sister Mary Scullion, of Project HOME, calls him a "real blessing to our city," while Democrat Sayde Joy Ladov, former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, calls him a "total mensch."

Tayoun says Powell is crazy to run, because he lacks the Democratic endorsement (even while "recommended" by the bar association) and doesn't have "the finances to create a citywide presence."

All that is true.

Sister Scullion tells me that for the last four years, Powell has volunteered at least once a week to work with inner-city teenagers at the Honickman Learning Center at 23rd and Berks. He runs a moot court, teaches kids what it's like to be a lawyer and "how to defend your position," says Scullion, adding that he invites some kids to work in his chambers.

In addition to Powell's Temple law degree, he also has a master's in social work from Temple and a bachelor's degree from La Salle.

He's not your typical "Republican," and he wasn't a Republican at all growing up in blue-collar Grays Ferry. His dad, Ken, was a cop, and all six of Powell's siblings have college degrees.

Powell has street smarts, thanks to Grays Ferry, and book smarts, thanks to Temple and La Salle.

He was a probation officer and an assistant D.A. early in his career, then moved into private practice, in which he made a nice-enough living to afford a house in Chestnut Hill, where he raised his two kids, now grown. With the nest empty, he's planning to move into burgeoning Southwest Center City, which he calls by its old name, Schuylkill.

Why quit a lucrative law practice for the bench, where he (unlike many judges) arrives at 7:30?

That's what I asked him over lunch at the Marriott Courtyard, across the street from the Criminal Justice Center.

"I wanted to do this," he says. "This is fulfilling to me and I can't imagine doing anything else."

There are people in this life, in this city, who believe in public service and value it more than cash. Powell is one of them.

I've asked around and learned that Powell is regarded as a fine judge, an honorable man. The Democratic endorsement he couldn't get went to two Democratic zombies who are "not recommended" by the bar association. As I've said before, the Democratic stranglehold on Philadelphia is not good for Philadelphia. It is not good for democracy, it is not even good for the Democratic Party, because it relieves the party of encouraging the best and the brightest. It too often prizes loyalty over merit.

Must we lose a good, nonpartisan judge because of bad ballot position or lack of the Democratic endorsement?

It doesn't, and shouldn't, have to be that way.

Kenneth Powell is No. 114 on the Democratic line. You get to select six Common Pleas judges from among 22 candidates.

Do yourself, and Philadelphia, a favor: Cast one vote for Powell. Ignore the party label - and the bow tie.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

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