Christiaan A. Hart Nibbrig
“I am very much in favor of the convention center. But I do not support the county of the bond. The convention center must be self-supporting.”
– Molly Henderson, at a public candidates’ debate,
one week before her election as 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 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 a frigid February. The parties normally close 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 the with the party’s imprimatur.
The spring primary for 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 million annual budget, but also who will staff and oversee the fourth largest workforce in the county. Lancaster County is big business.
The commissioners are also empowered to impose taxes, as they did controversially with the hotel room tax in 1999 to finance the convention center. The job comes with a nice $80,000 salary (the chairman makes a little bit more), full 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, an incumbent, 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. There are close to half a million people 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 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 make 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 klatsches, 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 large county with cardboard messages. At a series of fall “debates,” the candidates answer canned questions with canned, over-rehearsed responses, with the same stale jokes and punchlines. The Republicans, at some point (usually in closing remarks), invariably invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as a kind of benediction.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 candidates hold court at autumn fair booths, and march in country parades straight from a Norman Rockwell canvas. Letters to the editor from supporters and detractors (both often ghost-written by partisan activists) 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. Because of the partisan imbalance of registered voters, the county’s charter requires that one party can have no more than two members on the 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 that very weird campaign season.
And it got a lot stranger.
The 2003 campaign actually began in late 2002, when, in December of that year, 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 county board of commissioners, and Ron Ford, the board’s Democrat, had earlier in the year 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, those who had announced intentions to enter the May 20 primary were: Republicans Howard ‘Pete’ Shaub, the incumbent; Richard ‘Dick’ Shellenberger; Dennis Stuckey; James Huber; Steve McDonald; and Scott Martin. The Democrats fielded: Bill Saylor; Jon Price; and Molly Henderson.
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, the un-endorsed Paul Thibault, by almost 1000 votes.
Shaub, 48, was a fit, good-looking, 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, he was stopped by park rangers at a county park after the park was closed with his teenage daughter and one of her friends. 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 locally prominent house of worship in Christian-obsessed 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 sitting county controller in 2003. Bland, 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 longshot.
Steve McDonald, 39, the county recorder of deeds, was also a social conservative in the crowed 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 worker 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 far fetched 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 Untied Labor Council, and the AFL/CIO.
Henderson ran for the Democratic nomination for 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, still handsome and sharp at 74, was a former WGAL on-air news personality, and was running for the third time for the post of 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 darkhorse 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 the mercury 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.
The official results:
At this point, it appeared the fall election would go according to script. Shellenberger and Shaub would be elected, and either Henderson or Saylor would join them. And this did occur.
But something would happen on the way to the general election, and it would change Lancaster history forever.