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Normally, to hold an elected position a politician has to, well, run for office and get elected.
And, normally, that involves winning a Primary Election to secure the party’s nomination and then a General Election.
But in Philadelphia, dominated decisively by the Democratic party, primary elections are often everything, with primary nominees virtually guaranteed a win in the general election.
It turns out there is even a way to skip the primary election part.
This fall will likely see the election of J. Scott O’Keefe to become a judge of the Court of Common Pleas — a position that comes with an annual salary $161,850 — even though O’Keefe has never ran in nor won a primary election.
For starters, O’Keefe didn’t get elected to his current job as a judge in the city’s Municipal Court. Instead, in 2012, he was nominated by Gov. Tom Corbett and confirmed by the state Senate to fill a vacancy created by a judge retiring.
This year, O’Keefe caught another lucky break. A few weeks ago, another jurist, Common Pleas Judge D. Webster Keogh, announced his retirement from the bench. That created a vacancy, and seven members of the Democratic City Committee, which consists of the 69 ward leaders, tapped O’Keefe to fill it.
According to state law, in the case of a sudden vacancy on Common Pleas Court, party committees can select a new candidate for the General Election, without the necessity of holding another primary. In this case, that meant the city’s Democratic City Committee, led by party chair, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
Judge Keogh, according to documents submitted to Pennsylvania’s Department of State, handed in his resignation on August 30, creating a vacancy.
It didn’t take long for City Committee to fill it. On Sept. 9, seven members of the city’s Democratic leadership, among them congressman and party boss Bob Brady, convened to nominate O’Keefe for the position —seven participants, that is, in a city with 69 wards.
The City Committee submitted the paperwork nominating O’Keefe on Sept. 12 — two days before official notice of the vacancy was even posted in the Pennsylvania announcing that parties had until the 16th to nominate a candidate.
It was very good news for O’Keefe, who had filed to run for a seat on Common Pleas Court in the May primary, but withdrew his candidacy after he drew a low ballot position.
Now, O’Keefe will appear on the November general election ballot anyway – and is virtually guaranteed to win— thanks to an action by a small group of people meeting days before public notice of the vacancy was officially posted.
Matthew Keillor, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said that the vacancy was also posted earlier on the department’s web site, and that party leaders were contacted almost immediately after DOS learned of Keogh’s withdrawal.
However, that also meant that Philadelphians not in the loop —perhaps those who might have preferred another candidate — did not know anything about the special nomination.
“It seems like it’s not a democratic process,” observes Gloria Gillman, a Philadelphia attorney and a leader of the Philadelphia Progressive Democratic Caucus, a group of area Democrats who’ve bucked the Brady machine before.
“These are people who [the Brady organization] chose to be there to do this,” Gillman says. “I wonder why we don’t just substitute the person who got the next highest vote in the primary … Wouldn’t that be more the will of the people? As opposed to elevating a person who didn’t win the votes?”
This isn’t the first time a party favorite was handpicked to become a judge.
In 2011, Thomas Nocella, described by the Inquirer as an associate of Brady, was nominated for the Court of Common Pleas, though he did not run in that year’s primary. Nocella later was removed from the bench and disbarred for bringing the court into “disrepute” by withholding crucial information from the state bar association.
O’Keefe defended his candidacy this week, correctly pointing out that he was among the judges recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association and that he had drawn a particularly bad ballot position in his bid for Court of Common Pleas, prompting him to withdraw his candidacy in the spring.
“Ballot position has a lot to do with it,” he noted. “More to do with it than quality.”