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Nina Ahmad is making a million-dollar bet that an obscure state office will open future opportunities

Just five women have held statewide elected office for executive positions in Pennsylvania in 66 years. Nina Ahmad, running for Auditor General, seeks to expand that list.

Nina Ahmad, who ran briefly for lieutenant governor in 2018, is now a candidate for Pennsylvania Auditor General.
Nina Ahmad, who ran briefly for lieutenant governor in 2018, is now a candidate for Pennsylvania Auditor General.Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

Clout pop quiz: Name the six Democrats running in Tuesday’s primary election for auditor general in Pennsylvania.

We understand if you could only name one or two, or maybe none of them, even if this is the most competitive statewide race on the ballot. The office just doesn’t attract much attention.

Which brings us to Nina Ahmad’s million-dollar bet.

Ahmad, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor seeking the nomination, has sunk $1,090,773 in the last two years into two races for relatively obscure offices — $655,835 for lieutenant governor in 2018 and now $434,938 for auditor general.

“Unfortunately, it is obscure," she said of the office, which serves as a fiscal watchdog for state agencies and programs. "But that doesn’t make it unimportant or less expensive to run statewide to communicate to voters.”

Ahmad, who moved to the United States from Bangladesh in 1980 and became a citizen nine years later, knows a statewide office can launch future campaigns. She also knows that just five women have been elected to statewide executive offices in Pennsylvania in the last 66 years.

“And no person of color has ever been nominated by the Democratic Party statewide for executive office,” she said. "And the reason is, we are usually under-resourced and not backed by the establishment.”

So Ahmad and her husband, real estate developer Ahsan Nasratullah, are spending big.

Pennsylvania’s vast size and expensive television markets drive up the costs for candidates who lack name recognition. Ahmad has spent $532,026 on broadcast and cable television campaign advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Michael Lamb, the four-term Pittsburgh city controller, trails her in resources. He has spent $143,870 on television. Rose Marie Davis, a certified public accountant from Monroe County, has spent $1,004 on television.

The other Democrats haven’t spent any money on TV, according to Advertising Analytics. They are seven-term State Rep. Scott Conklin of Centre County; Tracie Fountain, a certified public accountant who has served in the Auditor General’s Office for three decades; and Christina Hartman, a nonprofit executive from Lancaster County who ran for the U.S. House in 2016.

Ahmad, Conklin, and Lamb appear to have the strongest name recognition. Some political watchers wonder if voters will treat this race like a statewide judicial contest with little-known candidates. The candidate with the first ballot position in those races has an advantage. Conklin holds that spot.

The primary looks like the real challenge this year. Republican Timothy DeFoor, the two-term Dauphin County controller, reported having just $2,385 in the bank when the latest campaign finance reports were due last Friday.

A new face, or two, coming to the PPA

The Philadelphia Parking Authority is about to have at least one new face on its six-member board. And that person will be there a while, since terms run for 10 years at the city’s last bastion of Republican patronage.

The terms for former City Councilmember Al Taubenberger and attorney Andrew Stutzman expire Monday. They hold seats appointed by the state Senate. By law, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican, had to send Gov. Tom Wolf at least three nominations to fill the two seats.

A Scarnati spokesperson said he resubmitted Taubenberger on May 12, along with Darren Smith, a lobbyist at Wojdak Public Relations and attorney in the suburban law firm Lamb McErlane, and Lynette Brown-Sow, a Philadelphia business consultant and former Community College executive.

Mike Cibik, a Philadelphia attorney who has been at the center of local Republican Party battles in the past, served on the PPA board from 2002 to 2010. Scarnati did not heed his request to return.

State Rep. Martina White, chair of the Republican City Committee, said the local party offered no input on the nominations.

Clout asked Stutzman, who won his original nomination with some help from the Delaware County Republican machine, if he wanted to be reappointed. He emailed to say he was “pleased to turn over that role to a new voice.”

Taubenberger told Clout he wanted to serve another term and thought his experience would help the agency.

He took serious heat four years ago when he defended the PPA’s handling of a sexual harassment scandal that eventually ousted former executive director Vince Fenerty. Taubenberger described Fenerty’s actions as a “puppy-love situation.”

The pitfalls of talking trash while teleconferencing

We’re on week … whatever … of working from home and connecting remotely. But government officials still haven’t learned to mute their microphones before talking some trash.

City Councilmember Cindy Bass asked Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell a question about summer programs during a teleconferenced budget hearing Tuesday.

The hearing moved on, but then Lovell was heard saying: “I hate her so much. So out to get me. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?"

Councilmember Cherelle Parker cut her off, declaring, “OK, somebody needs to mute.” It was too late. Bass made it clear she was offended.

“That was very disrespectful, because I’m the only one who asked her a question," Bass said. “So I would like for her to elaborate."

Lovell then apologized again to Bass, twice.

State Sen. Bob Mensch, a Berks County Republican, learned this lesson last month after he told someone in his office during a teleconferenced session that he could “stare daggers” at State Sen. Katie Muth, a Montgomery County Democrat. “And she doesn’t even know it,” the person replied.

Mensch’s microphone was hot. So Muth knew it.

Mensch later apologized without mentioning Muth by name, dubbing it “an off-handed comment” and “a personal observation.”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this column.