Maverick Democrat Jim Burn to challenge Gov. Wolf?

11.25.16 | Bob Price

As Pennsylvania Democrats grapple with the aftermath of the Nov. 8 election, leaders can expect criticism from a familiar source: former state Democratic chair Jim Burn, who says he’s weighing a challenge to Gov. Tom Wolf in the Democratic primary in 2018.

“There’s a lot of anger in the party out there with the failure of leadership to hold this state,” said Mr. Burn. And with Mr. Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey each facing re-election in two years, he said, “Both men better be looking over their shoulders after what just happened.”

His threat to run was scoffed at by some observers, who note that Mr. Burn has feuded with current party leaders. While the Wolf campaign declined to comment, state Democratic Party chair Marcel Groen said, “I think Jim’s lost touch with reality.”

Mr. Burn, a former mayor of Millvale, said, “It’ll be tough enough for an incumbent to win, and you don’t want a divisive primary that makes that even harder.” And his criticism of Mr. Wolf is less about policy than politicking: “I’d like to see him start to kick this thing into gear and sell what [he has] done.” A likely Republican challenger, York state Sen. Scott Wagner, “has got the fire. He looks hungry, unlike Tom Wolf.”

But he added, “Anyone who thinks the party doesn’t need a reboot, or that it hasn’t failed in paying attention to the demographics in Western Pennsylvania, is fooling themselves.”

Such remarks echo concerns among Democrats after Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, buoyed by massive turnout from small-town and rural voters.

“I think Jim is going to give voice to what the real problems are,” said Frank Rosenhoover, a Blair County Democrat who chairs the party’s North Central regional caucus. Party leaders “kept saying we’re going to get the big turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.” But “we didn’t tailor our message geographically, and there’s a resentment in rural areas that big cities get everything.”

Similar debates are taking place across the country, as Democrats wrestle with how to recapture support among working-class whites without sacrificing support in communities of color, which heavily backed Ms. Clinton. But in Pennsylvania, the discussion also echoes a years-old argument between Mr. Burn and other party leaders.

In 2014 Mr. Wolf, then the party’s gubernatorial nominee, tried to replace Mr. Burn as party chair with Katie McGinty. Mr. Burn, who was supported by rural Democratic leaders, clung to the post. But with questions about the party’s leadership lingering, Mr. Burn stepped aside for Mr. Groen, a lawyer from suburban Philadelphia.

Ms. McGinty became the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate this year, with national Democrats and their allies providing outside money to help her win a primary race against retired Adm. Joe Sestak and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. Ms. McGinty lost to Republican incumbent Pat Toomey in November, prompting more second-guessing.

“I’m so distressed that the national leadership put the screws to Joe,” said Mr. Rosenhoover. “I’m convinced he would have carried our part of the state.”

“We certainly have work to do” in connecting with white voters in economically stressed areas, Mr. Groen said. But he noted that while Democrats lost both the presidential and U.S. Senate fights, they swept the statewide row office races of attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer. “It’s not as bleak as Jim would like to pretend,” he said.

Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant, agreed those races offered hope for Democrats, and added, “I don’t see how a [primary] challenge by Mr. Burn is credible.” But he said “it’s obvious there was a disconnect,” between the party’s power centers and other areas of the state. “They have to figure out whether the disconnect has to do with the party or the candidate.”

Jack Hanna, an Indiana County lawyer who is the state party’s treasurer, said some Democrats were slow to see trouble brewing. “I’d tell the politicos out east, ‘It’s brutal out here,’” he said. “But they thought on a statewide basis the numbers looked good.”

Still, Mr. Hanna said, “it’s a big bite to blame the state party on this.” The eroding Democratic base outside cities, he said, “has been underway for two or three decades.” He suggested Democrats could reverse the trend by adopting the more populist economic vision of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.