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Philadelphia judicial candidates scramble for attention, pay for "consultants"

Sayde Ladov is a former chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association whose work in personal-injury and Family Court law spans more than three decades.

Sayde Ladov is a former chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association whose work in personal-injury and Family Court law spans more than three decades.

These days, though, she spends her time with a former U.S. representative from South Philadelphia once jailed for taking a $50,000 bribe and a Northeast Philadelphia ward leader whose claim to fame is his clout with one or two dozen other ward leaders.

That's because Ladov wants to be elected city judge.

But doing so in Philadelphia is never pretty, with less regard given to candidates' qualifications than to their ability to raise money, their ties with the city's 69 Democratic ward leaders, and, of course, their randomly drawn positions on the May 17 primary ballot.

"It's 'the process,' " said Ladov, among 45 candidates for 10 spots on Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court. The 10-year term comes with a $164,602 salary.

Eleven candidates are vying for one slot on Municipal Court, a job that lasts six years and pays $160,793.

"Either you fold your arms across your chest and say you don't like the process and, therefore, 'I am not going to be involved and not going to serve the people,' " Ladov said, "or you say, 'This is the process. If I get elected, I can do good, and I can make a meaningful contribution.' "

She chose the latter, and she is paying thousands of dollars to hire two "consultants," including still-influential former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers, jailed in 1981 in the Abscam scandal, and a 30-year ward leader, John Sabatina, who works to persuade other ward leaders to back his judicial candidates.

"I'm working 24 hours a day trying to make sure these people get covered all over, from wards to churches to wherever there can be an asset to their candidacy," said Sabatina, who also is helping three other would-be judges this year. For his work, they pay him $20,000 to $35,000 apiece.

The most recognized power broker, though, in deciding who gets to be called judge in Philadelphia - especially in low-turnout elections like the one anticipated in May - is U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party.

During the last decade, the party's clout has been tested as the so-called judicial consulting business has grown.

In the 2005 primary, for instance, just four party-backed candidates won in the race to fill eight vacancies on Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court. In 2007, when there were four openings, only one party favorite succeeded.

The party performed better in 2009, with its candidates now occupying eight of what were 11 vacancies - and Brady this year seems intent on still trying to demonstrate the party's strength.

A few weeks ago, before the Democratic Party met to make endorsements, Brady held private conversations with the bar association, seeking input on the qualifications of some favored aspirants. The association, which is still interviewing candidates, will in a few weeks announce whether it believes some are unfit for the job.

The party also did not meet to endorse its judicial slate until after candidates chose their ballot positions, which happens in a bingolike lottery. The result of that decision, though, is unclear, as just two of the 10 endorsed candidates are among the first 10 names that will appear on the ballot.

Unsurprisingly, many of the candidates the party has picked - Ladov is not among them - are political insiders.

Two have ties to former City Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell, the late party secretary and longtime Brady confidante. They are Edward C. Wright, Campbell's Council chief of staff, and Joyce Eubanks, her chief legislative aide, who was appointed in 2008 by Gov. Ed Rendell to briefly fill a Common Pleas Court vacancy.

Also backed are J. Scott O'Keefe, chairman of Unity 2001, a political committee run by one of Brady's House staffers and headquartered at Brady's West Philadelphia ward office, and Sean Kennedy, whose clients include Local 98 of the electricians' union, run by business manager John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, a former treasurer of the party.

In exchange for the support, each of the 10 candidates is expected to pay the party a $35,000 "assessment fee." Campaign finance reports in the past said the money went to pay for printing sample ballots and "street money" given to workers to distribute the sample ballots on election day.

"The process is not totally imperfect, because we do end up with some really, really smart and talented judges," longtime Democratic political consultant Dan Fee said. "But it is a process that allows for underqualified candidates who are elected based on relationships rather than qualifications."

With few of their names recognizable to voters, candidates also seek support from key constituent groups, including gays.

"They have been successful at getting their community to vote," said Lynn Marks, who keeps a close eye on judicial races as executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

That was apparent in the significant turnout at last week's forum held by the Liberty City Democratic Club, a major gay political organization.

About 40 judicial candidates showed up, including a handful who said they believed an endorsement from the group carried with it 5,000 votes.

For three hours, they rose, one after the other, in a hot, upstairs room at the William Way Center to talk about their candidacies, stressing their connection to the gay community, be it through a gay sibling, niece, or nephew.

They also sought to connect otherwise.

"Italian Americans suffered a great deal of discrimination themselves," Vince Giusini told the group, saying the largest mass lynching of Americans was the lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891.

"I was not in any way trying to equate discrimination of Italian Americans with that of the LGBT or blacks or other minorities," Giusini later said. "I was telling that story to underscore that as an Italian American, I know what discrimination is."