Legislator’s Sudden Death Reveals Power Struggle Between Lackawanna Dems and Feminist PAC

On November 6, a dead man will be elected to the Lackawanna County State House. Sid Michaels Kavulich, who passed away on October 16 after complications from heart surgery, had represented the 114th House District since November 2010. Kavulich, who was running uncontested, will keep his seat until a special election in early 2019, as dictated by state by laws.  

Kavulich’s death opens a seat in a county which hasn’t elected a woman to the state house since 1964. Although a record number of women are running for office in this midterm cycle, the “pink wave” has not reached Lackawanna. The leaders of Progressive Women of Northeast Pennsylvania (PWNEPA), a feminist PAC, view the vacancy as an opportunity to finally put a woman on the ballot. Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, became known as “Hillary Clinton Town,” due to Clinton’s familial ties to the area, and its history of voting for Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s father, Hugh, is originally from Scranton, the county seat. Despite these ties, Clinton only beat Trump by three percentage points in 2016, according to Lackawanna County certified election results.

Scranton has been regarded as a political thermometer by political scientists since the 1960s. Although it is a Democratic stronghold, many Scrantonians see themselves as more conservative Democrats, due to the strong influence of the Catholic Church in the area. In the upcoming midterm elections, a loss of what has traditionally been a Democratic seat could lead to significant political implications, and exacerbate tensions between the Party and local grassroots organizations that view the Democratic Party in Lackawanna as dysfunctional.

Jean Harris, a professor of Political Science at the University of Scranton, and a founding board member of PWNEPA, said that Democrats and Republicans will each appoint someone to run in the special election, which will most likely be held in March or April 2019.  According to Jan Kelly, a fellow PWNEPA Founding Board Member, for a woman to run, she might have to end up registering as an independent. “Let’s say the Republicans put up some good old boy and the Dems put up some good old boy,” said Kelly. “If we find a progressive woman to be on the ballot, there will be three names.”

An independent candidate supported by PWNEPA could be bad news for the Democrats, as it could potentially split the Blue votes. “Our hope is to pressure the Democratic Party,” said Harris. “But that may be a hard sell.”

Both women said they sent a letter to Christopher Patrick, chair of the Lackawanna County Democratic Committee, offering to recruit, train, and fund a progressive woman candidate. “If he tells us to go pound sand or whatever, then we’ll say, ‘all right, we are going to be doing this’,” said Kelly. “It’s time to get aggressive here.” According to Patrick, he hasn’t heard yet from PWNEPA regarding the special election.

Patrick and the Lackawanna County Democratic Committee have been subject to harsh criticism by both the leaders of PWNEPA and the members of Action Together NEPA, a non-profit grassroots organization that advocates for progressive issues in Northeastern Pennsylvania. They hold rallies, forums, and write letters to constituents to keep Northeast Pennsylvanians engaged in the political process.

Unlike PWNEPA, Action Together is an issue-based nonprofit, and does not fund or actively recruit political candidates. According to Marlee Stefanelli, the nonprofit’s treasurer, as part of their statewide coalition, Action Together  has knocked on 90,000 doors as of last week. “We have access to data that shows us who votes and who doesn’t,” she said. “We think that is going to make a difference.”

PWNEP’s Kelly, said that their frustration with the local Democratic Party is representative of one of the reasons why Clinton did not do well in Lackawanna County. “There was no groundswell. No organized County effort. Nothing,” she said. Similarly, Stefanelli accused Patrick of not being actively present in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was running for President. “About a week before the 2016 election, Chris Patrick was in Myrtle Beach golfing,” said Stefanelli. “He wasn’t here campaigning for Hillary.” Patrick denies the allegations.

The women of Action Together said that due to the disorganization and dysfunction of the Lackawanna Democratic Party, they have done a lot of the work themselves to get people to vote. In a county that historically has leaned democratic, but almost went Red in 2016, voter turnout is incredibly significant. “They are totally dysfunctional,”said Terri Zimmerman, 63, a member of the Action Together board. Stefanelli added that the problem with the Democratic Party in Lackawanna County is that it’s disorganized. “Pennsylvania Democrats should be able to walk into Lackawanna and there should be an infrastructure,” said Stefanelli. “But there isn’t.”

Stefanelli also said that the county’s Party only had one meeting so far, and that was to elect its chair. By her account, when PWNEPA tried to put somebody up to run for the chair, Patrick said that it was not done in a timely fashion. “You need to submit it a number of days before the meeting, but we weren’t notified about when the meeting was,” said Stefanelli.

Patrick said that the PWNEPA filed the paperwork too late. The deadline to file the paperwork was on a Tuesday, and they sent the letter on a Thursday, he said. “They had the bylaws,” he said. “And it is not my job to inform someone who is running against me.”  He said that PWNEPA members walked into the meeting and demanded that the rules be changed. “This is not the way to get things done,” he said.

Patrick denied allegations that the Democratic Committee in Lackawanna is dysfunctional, and said that those who criticize him are not aware of the fundraising efforts that happen behind the scenes. “We hold every full office in Lackawanna County,” he said. “We are the furthest thing from dysfunctional you’ll ever see.” He also denied that the party infrastructure is a “boys club” run entirely by men. Patrick said that in Lackawanna County there is one committeewoman for every committeeman in every single voter district. “It is easy to talk when you don’t really have the facts,” he said.

In the aftermath of Kavulich’s sudden death, Patrick said that the Democratic Committee in Lackawanna will work hard to ensure that the seat remains Blue. However, he does not believe that a newcomer would be an ideal candidate for the job. “Male or female would not matter, but they need to have a name,” said Patrick. “It has to be someone people can relate to, someone they know.”

Kelly said that if there is a female Blue wave on November 6th, it would be a compelling argument to get a woman on the ballot. It’s time to begin recruiting, she said, to contact members in the extended community, and to potentially publish an op-ed piece that would put pressure on the Democratic Party.

“You’re sitting right here with the Queen-makers,” she said.



Email the Author Giovanna Azevedo, at  gba233@nyu.edu