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Pa. Dems and a Saturday lost

A visit to a Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee meeting is enough to make anyone look to the future.

Katie McGinty (from left), Joe Sestak and John Fetterman.
Katie McGinty (from left), Joe Sestak and John Fetterman.Read more

HERSHEY - I didn't stay for the whole thing on Saturday. I just couldn't.

I've learned over time. A Democratic State Committee meeting is a souring experience - even when held in the "Sweetest Place on Earth."

It's the press of hundreds of party activists, the buttons, hats, signs, ingratiating candidates, naked self-promotion, regional caucuses, annoying procedures, speeches and motions and votes.

It saps the soul.

And for what? Zip. A meeting to endorse candidates Saturday failed to endorse a candidate for U.S. Senate in a marquee race with national attention and failed to endorse a candidate for state attorney general to replace a sitting attorney general getting national attention.

And it took all day.

The irony? Party chairman Marcel Groen urged an "open primary" with no endorsed candidates, but he was voted down. Then, after roughly forever, nobody running for either office could get enough votes for the party endorsement.

So, guess what? Open primary.

Still, pieces of personal loss were strewn across carpeted floors of multiple closed caucus meetings where candidates pleaded for support.

A committee woman emerged from one such caucus advising candidates, "Just don't go into the den of evil that's the south central caucus."

I moved on. I trolled halls and lounges in the sprawling Hershey Lodge and found not even the players were liking the process.

I asked John Fetterman, Braddock mayor and tattooed upstart Senate candidate (whose supporters were passing out stick-on tats), how he was enjoying his first Democratic State Committee meeting.

"About as much as I enjoyed my first colonoscopy," he said.

I ran into Philly party boss Bob Brady (sullen, sunken in an easy chair) and former Philly controller Jonathan Saidel.

I asked both why they were even there. "We got in a car," Saidel said. "We thought we were going to the casino."

Democrats are known for yuks, discord, inter-party intrigue, and political pratfalls.

Chairman Groen in January publicly called Fetterman the "toughest" Democratic candidate against GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall.

Fetterman finished a distant third in party endorsement votes Saturday, behind Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak.

McGinty trails Sestak (who lost to Toomey last time) in public polls. She couldn't get enough votes to be endorsed. But she's the choice of many party big shots to win the primary April 26.

I asked her about recent remarks from her campaign chairman, Ed Rendell. Ed told the Inquirer's Jonathan Tamari that McGinty "won't win" without $3.5 million to $4 million in TV ads, but that if she musters that amount, "I think she will win."

Talk about a ringing endorsement.

But the it's-always-sunny-everywhere McGinty smiled and told me, "He meant well."

I bet her Irish eyes weren't smiling at the time.

Party backing and political endorsements are old currency in today's market.

In statewide and national races, social media, PAC spending, and independent anonymous dollars - thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court - are the present and future drivers of votes.

A party endorsement these days even can be a bad thing.

Parties are seen as too established, part of the problem, only good for ideological troves of talking points.

As I sat at a press table in a cavernous ballroom listening to Sestak push his points at a decibel level high enough to violate local ordinances, McGinty leaned down and told me, "You will never have this Saturday back. Never."

She's right, of course. It's lost.

But same for others. Attorney general candidates Josh Shapiro and Stephen Zappala (whose supporters wore small circular "Z" stick-ons) lost endorsement votes, though Zappala out-drew Shapiro.

State treasurer candidate Joe Torsella and incumbent Auditor General Gene DePasquale have no primary opponents but sacrificed their time, too, I guess to get endorsed.

It was, at least, a meeting easy to leave - and quickly, without looking back.

As one top Democratic operative confided, "I always get speeding tickets when I leave state committee."