When 264 members of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County gathered last week to pick a candidate for an upcoming special election, they likely had no idea they were about to expose a rift in the party.
Committee members themselves called it a “surprise” when Eric Reath, a top aide to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker with ties to multiple Republican officeholders in the county, lost his bid to secure the nomination for the Clerk of Courts, a post that came open this summer after the elected clerk was appointed county solicitor.
Four candidates stepped forward seeking the county committee’s endorsement, and Reath was considered the favorite given his backing by Smucker and a long list of legislators and municipal officials.
But in the end, the margins were not very close. In the first round of voting, which included four candidates, attorney Mary Anater took 42% of the vote to Reath’s 38%, a result that elicited a few gasps from the room. In the second round - in which only Anater and Reath were on the ballot - she took 56.5% to his 43.5%.
The win by Anater, a relative newcomer to politics, amounted to a noteworthy rebuke by rank-and-file members of party leadership and showed a distaste for the kind of patronage that typically turns off voters, according to two people -- a veteran committee member and a former party chairman.
It also raised questions about the level of influence elected officials - the so-called party elites - have over the party organization at a time when voters and grassroots activists are angry and divided over everything from the 2020 elections to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(Elected officials) are accountable to the committee and not the other way around,” said Terry Christopher, former Lancaster Township committee chair who was in attendance Wednesday night. “(This vote said), ‘No, no, we are in charge. Not the party bosses, not the state reps -- we were elected to make these decisions.’”
County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, who nominated Reath, pushed back on that interpretation. He said the clerk of courts selection was a “friendly rivalry” between people supporting different candidates, with the process working itself out to select the best candidate.
“You have your friendly rivalries during the process, that’s just how it is. But in the end, we come together and support the candidate,” he said.
Zach Peirson, a senior adviser to Smucker’s campaign who spoke to LNP on Smucker’s behalf, made a similar point, saying it’s standard for candidates to seek support from influential Republicans, but that it is the committee members’ role to vet and choose candidates, which is what happened with Anater’s selection.
“I think (saying members rebuked leadership) is misreading the tea leaves,” he said, adding that the committee unanimously endorsed Smucker during his last run. “This is just the process people ask for endorsements, and the committee votes.”
Reath’s campaign advisory committee was stacked with a veritable who’s who of party members. In addition to his boss, the congressman, Reath’s allies included county commissioners D’Agostino and Josh Parsons; state representatives Dave Hickernell, Keith Greiner, Steve Mentzer and Dave Zimmerman; Sheriff Chris Leppler and Prothonotary Andy Spade; four chairs and two vice chairs of local Republican committees; and RCLC Chairman Kirk Radanovic’s wife, Loretta Radanovic, who is treasurer of the Manheim Central Committee.
“Eric had acquired a visible list of support that I just thought, to me, indicated a strength that would be difficult to overcome,” said Christina Hausner, a member of the Hempfield committee and former county solicitor. “I was just surprised given the list of legislators, county officials, et cetera, who supported Eric that the result was what it was.”
Reath has served in various roles in Smucker’s office dating back to Smucker’s first run for the seat in 2015. Prior to that, he held positions in the Pennsylvania House Representatives for local Republicans including Mentzer and Greiner, and worked on state Sen. Ryan Aument’s 2014 campaign. He graduated from American University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and government.
Sheriff Leppler, who endorsed Reath, said he supported him because “he’s been very supportive of the party and put a lot of effort into the party.”
“I think Eric is very intelligent and he brings a lot to the table,” he said. “I think he would have learned the office very quickly and been managing the office in a very short amount of time.”
Anater has worked as a law clerk under Lancaster County Judges Thomas Sponaugle and Merrill Spahn, and as legal counsel to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Her legal work dealt largely with immigration and family law. She graduated from Millersville University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and earned a juris doctorate in 1997 from the Widener University School of Law.
“It’s encouraging that the Republicans put someone forward based on their qualifications rather than their connections,” said Ethan Demme, former chair of the RCLC, who has since left the Republican Party.
Scott Frantz, chair of the Solanco Area Committee, nominated Anater because he thought she was “best for the job.”
“Having limited knowledge of the Clerk of Courts (myself), I think her experience working for a judge, knowing the timelines and what has to be filed, and working as a lawyer on the consumer side, if you will, she would know what was expected (on both ends),” he said.
Frantz didn’t voice an opinion on whether the vote reflected a rejection of party leaders, but others were less shy. Christopher said the clerk’s race amounted to a “referendum” on elected officials who use their committee positions and influence to try to sway committee-level races, something he's tried unsuccessfully to prohibit in recent years.
“The idea that the elected officials can just throw their weight around and tell the committee how to vote, that idea was soundly rejected,” he said. “This was an opportunity where the committee had a chance to choose between a woman who was extremely qualified or a person who was unqualified but ordained by party bosses or politicians, but the committee said ‘no.’”
For his part, Reath rejected the notion that his loss reveals a divide inside the party, saying the race was simply four candidates seeking the party’s support.
“Anyone who indicates that there is something more to the committee process or otherwise is grasping at straws,” he wrote in an email.
He also noted that the party’s leadership team was unanimously elected at its reorganization meeting in 2020, a further sign of party unity.
RCLC leader criticized
An email Christopher sent to the committee the night before the clerk vote may have given a boost to Anater. Behind the scenes, Christopher and Radanovic had been arguing about how lists of committee members were distributed to candidates seeking the party’s endorsement.
After the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol building, the GOP removed its list of committee members and their contact information from the party’s website, which Radanovic said in an email to the committee was done because members were receiving scam emails, threats and harassment. In the email, Radanovic said all Republican candidates can obtain committee lists and that he asks all candidates to make “financial commitments” to the county party.
Christopher’s email paints this as more of a quid-pro-quo transaction.
“Chairman Radanovic told Clerk of Courts candidate Craig Storrs that Craig would need to pay $1500.00 to receive committee member emails and phone numbers,” he wrote. Storrs confirmed this to LNP|LancasterOnline and said he did feel it hindered his campaign.
Christopher also said Radanovic rejected a suggestion that the party hold a meet and greet with the four clerk candidates – which LNP|LancasterOnline verified with a member of party leadership – saying such a meeting “wouldn't be fair since they weren't governed by our bylaws.”
“The Republican Committee of Lancaster County is an organization meant to vet candidates and help all Republicans, you are responsible to hold elected officials rather than to have elected officials tell you who the candidates will be, I implore you to take back that role tomorrow night,” Christopher wrote in the email.
Storrs said he viewed Anater’s victory as a mixed bag.
In speaking with committee members during his campaign, he said a “prevalent” concern among them was the gap in qualifications between Anater and Reath, especially in light of an email President Judge David Ashworth sent to other judges warning of a staffing “crisis” in the office.
“They recognized Eric had a lot of institutional support from Congressman Smucker, Josh Parsons. They understood all that and they were concerned that would propel him to the office,” Storrs said. “It’s not necessarily an outright rejection (of leadership) because it is a court position, people recognize the need for a qualified candidate. But at the same time, rejecting the congressman’s chosen candidate is a big red flag. It tells me that the majority of the committee members don’t look favorably on favoritism.”