Chapter Ten: The ‘bumpy ride’ of Commissioners Shellenberger, Shaub, and Henderson

(Tenth in a series)

I am very much in favor of the convention center. But I do not support the county bond. The convention center must be self-supporting.”

Molly Henderson, a week before her election as Lancaster County Commissioner, October, 2003

“I am behind the convention center. However, I am opposed to the county insuring the bond,”

— Dick Shellenberger, a week before his election Lancaster County Commissioner, October, 2003.
County Commissioner campaigns in Lancaster usually follow a predictable pattern.

Every four years, sometime during January, candidates file papers with the county election board to appear on the May primary ballot. They and others then spend the next several weeks gathering signatures on petitions to qualify for the spring election.

For the major party candidates – the Republicans and Democrats – their time is also spent lobbying the roughly 300 committee people in each party scattered throughout the vast county for their endorsement votes.

The party endorsements are voted on by the committee members at a conference held at a local hotel at the end of February. The parties normally end those meetings with two endorsed candidates for the May primary. Occasionally, a party will endorse one or three candidates. But, historically, it is usually two who leave with the party’s imprimatur.

The spring primary for Lancaster County Commissioner is the most important election in Lancaster County. Not only does it determine which three (of four) people will eventually administer a $300-plus million annual budget, but also who will staff and oversee the fourth largest workforce in the county. Lancaster County is big business.

County Commissioners are also empowered to impose taxes, as they did controversially with the hotel room rental tax in 1999 to finance the convention center. The job of Commissioner comes with an $80,000 salary (the chairman makes a bit more), comprehensive benefits, a full-time assistant, and all the social prestige a Lancastrian could ever want.

Other major county offices, including the county District Attorney and Judgeships, are also decided in a Commissioners’ election year. In 2003, Donald Totaro, the incumbent District Attorney, who would play a central role in the lives of the next board of commissioners, was the Republicans’ endorsed choice for DA.

Lancaster County’s voting demographics are somewhat peculiar. The great majority of the roughly half a million people are scattered about the county’s mostly rural 940 square miles. About 300,000 of them are registered to vote. In the mostly (95+%) white county, Republicans out-number Democrats almost two to one. In the ethnically mixed, poorer city, where 50,000 people live, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a more than two-to-one margin for the approximately 35,000 registered city voters. (There are also about 5,000 non-Democrat and non-Republican voters in the city.)

Complicating the political calculus is Lancaster County’s enormous size and more than 60 townships, boroughs, and municipalities, some of which have differing and competing local interests, and are run mostly autonomously by regional power brokers and local boards.

After the primary, where about one-in-five registered voters make it to the polls, the top two vote-getters from both parties (endorsed or not) appear on the November general election ballot.

Party-endorsed candidates are able to use many of the party’s resources, including campaign funding subsidies. For example, the parties subsidize mass mailings; very important in a county whose diffuse electorate makes it logistically difficult to knock on all the doors.

Commissioner candidates of both major parties in Lancaster County typically spend the summer before the general election attending corn roasts, chicken BBQs and fish fries, fundraisers, park clean-ups, coffee klatches, canvassing, and picking up political endorsements wherever they can find them.

In September, the yard signs emerge, seemingly overnight, on freeways, street corners, front lawns, windows, blanketing the county with cardboard ‘vote-for-me’ messages.

At a series of fall ‘debates,’ the candidates answer canned questions with canned, over-rehearsed responses, with the same stale jokes and stiff punch lines. The substantive positions on the issues – regardless of party – are virtually indiscernible. All are for reducing taxes, improving schools, preserving farms, revitalizing urban areas, and wiping the chins of senior citizens. The Republicans, invariably, invoke the name “Ronald Reagan” into their remarks.

The candidates hold court at autumn country fairs and march in parades straight from a Norman Rockwell canvas. Letters to the editor from supporters and detractors (often ghost-written) deluge the opinion pages of Lancaster Newspapers.

After the primary, the process is largely rote and ceremonial for the Republican candidates. They know they will win the election and become county commissioners.

For the Democrats, it is very much a political match to the death. The  county’s charter requires that one party can have no more than two members on the three-person County Board of Commissioners. For 150 years this has meant that two Republicans would share the board with one Democrat.

By the first Tuesday of November – without exception – two Republicans and one of the two Democrats are elected to the board. This is how it usually goes.

Although the general election results of 2003 did end with the same two Republicans-to-one-Democrat board composition, that is about the only thing that went according to history during that very weird campaign season.

The 2003 campaign actually began in late 2002, when, in December, eight of the nine final candidates announced their intentions to run in the May primary.

Two of the sitting commissioners, Paul Thibault, the Republican chairman of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, and Ron Ford, the Board’s lone Democrat, had indicated they would not seek re-election in 2003. Both Ford and Thibault voted for the hotel room tax to support the convention center in 1999, with Thibault playing a leading role in its passage.

By mid-January, 2003, nine candidates for County Commissioner filed the paperwork to enter the May 20 primary. They consisted of six Republicans and three Democrats.

The Republicans included: Howard ‘Pete’ Shaub, an incumbent Commissioner; Richard ‘Dick’ Shellenberger, a restaurant owner; Dennis Stuckey, the County Controller; James Huber, former four-term County Commissioner; Steve McDonald, County Recorder of Deeds; and Scott Martin, County Youth Intervention Director.

The Democrats fielded: Bill Saylor, a former television newsman; Jon Price, a township supervisor in tiny Clay Township; and Molly Henderson, a college professor and former Lancaster City public health official.

Only Shellenberger was endorsed by the Republican Party, while the Democrats endorsed all three candidates. This was the first indication the race wouldn’t follow strict convention.

Pete Shaub was not endorsed by his own party at the Republican committee endorsement convention in 2003, as he had been four years earlier. In 1999, he had been the top vote getter of all the candidates, beating his running mate, Thibault, by almost 1000 votes.

Shaub, 48, was a fit, charismatic,  nattily dressed, former marine, employed as a construction executive. He also worked as an auctioneer for the family’s auction business.

Shaub had never held elected office before becoming commissioner, though he was Republican committeeman and a state committeeman. Shaub, originally from the southern portion of the county, was a neighbor of one of the state’s most powerful political figures.

I consider Pete Shaub to be a friend,” said Rep. John Barley, the powerful state House Appropriations chairman in 1999, endorsing Shaub.

In Shaub’s four years in office he often clashed with Thibault, and was getting a reputation of something of a tightly-wound, unpredictable official. One night, with his teenage daughter and one of her friends, he was stopped by park rangers at a county park after the park was closed. Shaub’s explanation: they were conducting a Bible study.

Dick Shellenberger, a 57 year-old restaurant owner, had no political experience at all. He belonged to, and was very involved in the Cavalry Church, a large and well-known house of worship in Lancaster County.

Shellenberger, pleasant and gracious, was a social conservative typical for the mainstream of Lancaster County. Tall, with a straight back and a nice head of hair, Shellenberger looked good in a suit. He worked in restaurants all of his life, and recently owned a local eatery with his wife, Pam.

Shellenberger was something of the darling of the party in 2003. He raised the most money and got the most votes. He even drew the top spot on the ballot for the May primary, which was a random draw. His campaign events were accompanied by songs like “This Land is your Land,” and “God Bless America.” He came with the GOP endorsement, and everyone seemed to like ‘Dick’.

Dennis Stuckey, 50, was the County Controller in 2003. Bland and portly, Stuckey generated little enthusiasm in the party. He was supported, however, by GOP leaders such as Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall and current Commissioner Paul R. Thibault, two of the convention center’s most ardent advocates.

James Huber was a 68 year-old a former four-time commissioner (1987-1995), was attempting an unlikely (and unendorsed) comeback. This was Huber’s second comeback, and his bid was looked upon as a long shot.

Steve McDonald, 39, the county Recorder of Deeds, was also a social conservative in the crowded field. Blow-dried, with a sunlamp tan, McDonald’s style didn’t resonate with the rank-and-file county Republican voter.

The last Republican commissioner candidate was Scott Martin, 30, who was a full-time director in the county’s Youth Intervention Center. A former football player in the Arena League (and very briefly affiliated with the NFL’s NY Giants), Martin was considered a farfetched candidate. In March of 2003, Martin had to explain the embarrassing revelation that he was actually a registered Democrat. He called it a “mistake,” and denied he was an actual Democrat.

For the Democrats, Molly Henderson, 49, was a local Millersville product. She was a state and local committeewoman who formerly headed the city’s Environmental Health and Protection Unit in the Smithgall administration. Henderson, who earned a doctorate in Public Health from Temple, though without electoral experience, was a confident and energetic candidate, and indefatigable campaigner.

Henderson was able to collect a broad range of support which reached across the aisle and included John S. Shirk, former Republican Manheim Township Commissioner and committeeman. Her campaign co-chairman (an honorary but significant post) was outgoing commissioner Ron Ford. (Ford was also the honorary chair of another candidate, Jon Price.)

In addition to the Lancaster Democratic Committee endorsement, Henderson was also supported by Rep. Mike Sturla (D), the Lancaster United Labor Council, and the AFL/CIO.

Henderson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1995, and lost a close race to Ford and Saylor.

“I am not afraid of controversy,” Henderson said during the 2003 campaign. “I stand up for what I believe, even when my job is at stake.”

Bill Saylor, tall and still handsome at 74, was a former WGAL-TV on-air news personality, and was running for the third time for the post of County Commissioner. In 1999, he lost to Ron Ford, by fewer than 200 votes. Diffident and aloof, Saylor, also of Millersville, had a difficult time having people warm up to him.

Finally, there was Jon Price, a boyish 33 year-old Clay Township supervisor. Price was from a politically active and well-known local family, but was seen as the dark horse in the three-person field.

Before the primary, the positions of all the candidates regarding the convention center project can only be described as uniform and positive toward the project. Here is what the contenders said prior to the primary on the issue:

SHAUB: “Lancaster County should support the downtown convention center and hotel.”

SHELLENBERGER: “The hotel tax provides revenue for our visitors bureau, which in turn, if used wisely, will attract more tourists to the county.”

SAYLOR: “The worst thing possible would be for the convention center to be built then fail.”

HENDERSON: “The community accepted this project years ago. Dozens of revitalization projects—public and private—are based upon its completion.”

The rest of the candidates supported the project unreservedly.

The temperature on primary election day, May 20, 2003, was mild, with a temperature reaching the mid 70s. Election officials reported a voter turnout of 21 percent among the county’s registered Republicans and Democrats. A total of 49,630 ballots were cast on that day.

When the votes were counted, Dick Shellenberger had the collected the most, with 21,823 votes. Pete Shaub garnered 15,465, for second place and his name as one of two Republicans on the November ballot. Shaub had more than 4,000 votes more than third-place finisher, Dennis Stuckey. Huber and McDonald finished fourth and fifth  in that order.

For the Democrats, the plucky Henderson collected 6,272 votes, beating Saylor by almost 1,500 votes. Price came within 300 votes of Saylor, and challenging Henderson for the minority seat.

At this point, it appeared the fall 2003 election would go according to script. Shellenberger and Shaub would be elected and form a Republican majority, and either Henderson or Saylor would join them as Board’s Democrat member.

But the script was about to be re-written.

Watching the primary campaign for Lancaster County Commissioner in the spring of 2003 was a courtly, 55 year-old lawyer named James N. “Jim” Clymer. Jim Clymer was something of a renaissance man in fenced-in Lancaster County. A former farmer, truck driver, and carpenter, Clymer was also a licensed, instrument-rated pilot.

Clymer was then, and for several years, the national Chairman of the Constitution Party. In 1994, he ran for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor on the U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket (which became the Constitution Party in 1999). In that election, Clymer siphoned about 16 percent of the overall turnout. He also ran for another Pennsylvania state post as a Libertarian candidate for Auditor General in 1992, and again for Lieutenant General in 1998 with the U. S. Taxpayers. In the latter race, he garnered 10.5 percent of the vote.

Jim Clymer was born, raised, went to college, and married in Lancaster County. (He went to law school in Kansas.) A father of five, who served his church as a deacon, elder, and Sunday school teacher, Clymer was a quiet community pillar who knew the values of conservative Christian Lancaster County very, very well.

The senior and founding partner of a Constitution and religious freedom-based law practice, Clymer had a reputation for integrity and professional competence. With a direct, soft-spoken, gracious personal manner, Jim Clymer was also known as a good guy.

Clymer’s political ideology might be called social-conservative, or ultra-conservative, or paleo-conservative. Many Constitution Party members disaffectedly departed the Republican Party because it wasn’t conservative enough for them.

The Constitution Party’s positions include abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Education, withdrawal from the United Nations, and a non-negotiable, one hundred percent opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

While these values might not resonate in San Francisco, or even nearby Philadelphia, they do in Lancaster County, where they are in the middle of the mainstream. Taxing regular Pennsylvanians to pay for a convention center struck Jim Clymer as just plain wrong. And he was going to speak up about it.

One week after the primary, on May 28, 2003, Jim Clymer indicated to the Lancaster New Era that he was leaning toward running a third-party campaign for commissioner, saying his conservative principles were more in line with Lancaster County voters than either Democrat candidate.

I decided to run for commissioner because none of the other candidates were willing to take a position against the convention center,” Clymer said to NewsLanc.com.

Weeks later, Clymer filed papers to run for Lancaster County Commissioner. To get his name on the November ballot, Clymer was required to collect a minimum 1,500 signatures from registered voters attesting to his fitness to serve as a county commissioner. By July 31, when Clymer turned in his signatures, he had almost 3,000 valid names, nearly double the necessary number. Jim Clymer was now going to have a voice in this election.

(One of the signatories on the Clymer petition was James Huber, the former county commissioner, who ran unendorsed, and lost, in the Republican primary. Huber was also a GOP committeeman for nearly three decades. After signing the petition, Huber was stripped of his committee position.)

What most people anticipated would be a traditional two-way contest between Democrats Bill Saylor and Molly Henderson, was now a battle that included Jim Clymer for the third Commissioner’s seat.

The issue that sharply distinguished Jim Clymer from the other candidates was his complete and unequivocal opposition to the convention center. Not only was the project dependent on taxpayer dollars for support, but it was a bad idea as a basic business proposition. The issue was the centerpiece of his campaign.

“In business, you don’t just go out and start a new project without looking at what’s happening in other places. Convention centers are failing all over the place. What does this city have that will make a difference? We don’t even have air service,” Clymer said during the campaign.

Although Clymer was buttoned-down and mild of manner, he acquired considerable campaign savvy with his multiple state bids. He was also closely aligned locally with a unique and valuable campaign weapon: Ron Harper, Jr.

In 2003, Harper and Clymer were friends who shared many of the same social and political views. Like Clymer, Harper and was a born and raised Lancastrian. Both were born-again Christians (Harper a Lancaster Bible College graduate) – both married, fathers of five.

And on the convention center issue, Clymer and Harper’s positions were identical – the project was ‘big government’ at its worst. The center should not be built on the backs of the taxpayers . . . and it should be stopped.

Although not an official member of the Clymer campaign staff, it is clear the colorful Harper was more than a typical backer of the candidate.

“Ron was a very active supporter of my campaign,” says Clymer today. “And his website [5thestate.com] was very helpful in raising some important issues at the time, particularly concerning the convention center.”

Harper has no doubt about Clymer’s impact on the race.

“Oh, there is no way the convention center issue would have come up except for Jim,” says Harper today. “The county bond backing was the biggie. Shaub voted not to back the convention center bond because of Jim!”

The “bond backing” referred to a $40 million Convention Center Authority issue that would be guaranteed by Lancaster County taxpayers. All of the commissioner candidates were on record opposing the county guarantee.

Meanwhile, away from the public eye in the summer months of 2003, the two Republican ‘shoo-in’ commissioner candidates, Pete Shaub, and Dick Shellenberger, were quietly engaged in regular, private meetings with Lancaster County solicitor, John Espenshade.

Espenshade, the county solicitor for more than 15 years, was also solicitor for the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA), and at Stevens & Lee. Stevens & Lee still represented High Industries as High’s registered lobbyist in Harrisburg.

The topic of the meetings between Shaub, Shellenberger, and Espenshade — which occurred privately among the three after the primary election and before Shellenberger took office — was the potential sale of the county-owned Conestoga View Nursing Home

After the primary, Republicans Shaub and Shellenberger campaigned on a platform of reduced government and increased privatization. Divesting of a government-run facility like the nursing home was consistent with their stated political philosophy at a time when President George W. Bush was advocating the privatization of Social Security. But they didn’t mention that Conestoga View would be put up for sale until a deal was formally proposed in public at a Commissioner’s meeting in 2005.

These meetings, and the eventual sale of Conestoga View, would play a role in killing the political careers of Shaub and Shellenberger; in fact, they would contribute to the political deaths of the entire next board of commissioners.

In order to build something like a convention center, which in 2003 was estimated to cost $55 million, money must be borrowed. Few pay attention to the world of municipal bond finance, yet this is the mechanism used to finance many of the capital projects built in the United States.

A government entity, in this case the LCCCA, “floats” or “issues” or offers the bonds for sale. A bank usually buys the bond issue, and re-markets the bond to investors. (The interest on the bond may also be tax exempt.)

In order to maximize the amount and get lower interest rates for what is essentially a loan, bond payments are often guaranteed by some level of the government. The interest rates are lower because of the government’s usually good credit rating. (Lancaster County had a desirable “AAA” credit rating.)

If the Convention Center Authority couldn’t make its payments, the Lancaster County taxpayers would be responsible for the bond debt.

The possibility that the LCCCA might ask the county to guarantee a bond issue was initially raised in the spring of 2003 by a city businessman named Chris Kunzler, III.

Kunzler, the CEO of a large, Lancaster-based hot dog and deli-meat business, Kunzler & Co., was smart, didn’t have a ‘dog in the race,’ and he was not a hotelier.

In an April 20, 2003, Letter to the Editor of the Sunday News, Kunzler publicly raised the issue that a government guaranteed bond would be necessary to finance the convention center:

The convention center alone is expected to cost $55 million, with $15 million supposedly coming from the state. The hotel tax is generating approximately $3 million a year. This $3 million in tax revenue will not come close to servicing the debt on a $40-million bond issue. Let’s not forget the ongoing operating losses of the convention center and the money being spent to promote it. Who will guarantee this bond? And when the project fails, where will the funding come from then? Taxes? Who will be responsible for the losses—the community, with additional taxes?”

Jim Clymer’s explanation for entering the race—that no other candidate was addressing the convention center issue—was not entirely accurate. While he was the only person in the race who rejected all aspects of the convention center on its face, other candidates were on the record critical of increased government involvement in the project.

Democrat candidate Molly Henderson was the first in the race to address and oppose the idea of county backing of a construction bond. She said that although she favored the center, it should be “self-supporting” and not reliant on government backing.

In late September, Clymer even proposed a county-wide referendum on the issue.

By the fall of 2003, the design and cost for the center were not finalized; no true feasibility study had been performed; not a spade of dirt had been turned; and the legitimacy of Clymer’s one-issue candidacy showed that many people throughout the county were strongly opposed to the project.

During the fall campaign, five of the six candidates (the Green Party had qualified a candidate, Scott Kender) went ‘on the record’ opposing any county guarantee of a LCCCA-issued bond to construct the convention center. Only Democrat, Bill Saylor, was non-committal on the bond guaranty

Paul Thibault, the Republican, lame duck, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, may have been alarmed by the prospects of the next board opposing a guarantee.

Thibault, with his Kennedy styled coif and silver-tongue, was the rarest of Lancaster County political insiders—an insider who was an outsider. Thibault, Connecticut-born and raised in Canada, was two times denied the Republican Party endorsement for commissioner, yet managed to be elected to consecutive terms.

A day-one supporter of the convention center project, Thibault was also the beneficiary of substantial campaign contributions from the Lancaster Alliance, the private, non-profit organization, three of whose founding 12 members made up Penn Square Partners. Every time Thibault ran, he collected the most money.

During the fall campaign, the bond issue had been discussed intensely in candidate debates and in the newspapers (both dailies supported the bond guaranty), but the Commissioners had not officially deliberated on the matter.

On October 16, 2003—without a formal request from the LCCCA—Thibault and the Commissioners’ board voted to hire bond counsel to explore a county guaranty.

“Something doesn’t smell well in Denmark,” said Jim Clymer at the crowded October 16th Commissioners’ meeting, raising the question of how the board could hire counsel unless it had—outside of public view—discussed the official action privately.

Only six days later, on the 22nd of October, the Commissioners held a public meeting to discuss the bond guaranty. One week later, in the form of County Ordinance 73, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, in a 2-1 vote (Shaub voted against) passed the bond guaranty.

It was less than a week before the election.

###

Chapter Eleven: Ties that Bind: The old board shackles the new

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