HARRISBURG — The center of gravity in the Democratic Party's state committee shifted westward Saturday, as committee members turned to a familiar face in a time of upheaval.
Indiana, Pa.-based lawyer Jack Hanna, a former party treasurer and a fixture on the committee for nearly a quarter-century, was named interim chair at the party's winter meeting in Harrisburg. Allegheny County committee chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills was named interim vice chair — and is a contender to be the permanent chair in June.
The election of Hanna fills the post vacated by former chairman Marcel Groen, a Montgomery County lawyer who resigned Feb. 2 at the behest of Gov. Wolf amid criticism Groen had been insensitive on issues of sexual harassment. (Former vice chair Penny Gerber also recently stepped down, for health reasons.)
Hanna, who's been planning to move to the Pacific Northwest, said the interim post "will be a wonderful capstone. And my last official act will be turning over the gavel to the next leader, with a bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye."
Saturday's meeting, symbolically enough, also featured the passage of rules describing a process for reporting and investigating sexual harassment in the party. Democrats hailed the measure as providing a contrast with Republicans, rocked recently by reports of spousal abuse among White House staffers.
The policy "is going to give us the ability to send a very strong message this election," Wolf told the committee.
There was little open controversy over the rules or the interim selections. The only breakdown of consensus came when the party sought to endorse a candidate for lieutenant governor. Democrats require a two-thirds vote to endorse, and with seven candidates in the offing, the committee decided not to give its nod — even though the field included incumbent Mike Stack.
Stack, a member of a prominent Philadelphia political family, has a rocky relationship with Wolf and a pile of legal bills stemming from last year's state inspector general investigation of allegations the lieutenant governor and his wife mistreated their security detail and other state employees.
Hanna, meanwhile, will serve until after the May primary, when Democratic voters will elect state committee members to four-year terms.
He said he wasn't planning major changes to the party's structure or staff, but would focus on providing logistical and other support to candidates across the state. Starting with the March 13 special election in southwestern Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, he said, "This will truly be a keystone state politically."
Hanna is well-liked, with supporters ranging from Wolf to Allegheny County's James Burn, the previous chairman Wolf helped depose in favor of Groen in 2015.
Citing his prior moving plans, Hanna said he won't seek the post permanently. Patton Mills, meanwhile, said she intends to seek the seat in June.
"Definitely I would be interested in it," she said.
Patton Mills is close to Wolf, which prompted grumbling that selecting her would give the governor — who pushed both for Groen's appointment and his departure — too much influence over the party.
"I've heard a lot of that," Patton Mills said.
She noted Wolf was "the No. 1 Democrat in the state," and said it was important to be on the same page with him on key issues, like having a no-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.
But Patton Mills said, "I would be independent" as chair. "The committee has to operate independently."
Jeffrey Sheridan, a Wolf spokesman, said that while the governor "has a tremendous amount of respect for Chairwoman Mills … he believes [it's for] members of the state committee to decide."
Hanna called the relationship between the party and Wolf "a delicate balance" in which the governor should have input but not "overarching control."